During Joe Biden’s election campaign, he promised he would be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” This may be the most important promise he made, at least on the economic front.
Income inequality has steadily increased in the U.S. in the last 30 years and is considerably greater than in other advanced economies. The collapse of the industrial heartland into the Rust Belt paralleled by the replacement of good union jobs with precariat jobs was a major contributor to the election of Donald Trump.
The replacement of financially rewarding jobs with financially precarious jobs is largely the result of the collapse of organized labour. Union membership in the U.S. has declined from about a third of the workforce in the 1950s to about eleven percent today, the lowest in the Western world. By contrast, two-thirds of Sweden’s workforce is unionized, even a quarter of Canada’s.
In an echo of the Gilded Age, American politicians have seemed more interested in the interests of corporations than in those of unions. The U.S. transitioned to a largely service economy during an era of conservative political dominance. Even the Democrats, traditional friends of unions, have been disappointing. President Obama was worker-friendly—his use of executive orders to improve fairness was unprecedented—but his policies inconsistent. For example, he failed to increase the federal minimum wage and alienated unions with his support of global trade agreements. And union membership continued to decline. His successor, Hillary Clinton, sometimes referred to as “the bankers’ candidate,” was largely rejected by union members, winning only half as many of their votes as Obama.
Trump was the beneficiary, depending on the votes of disaffected workers to win the presidency, even though all he had to offer them was blaming their problems on immigrants and the Chinese.
Biden has now promised to reverse the trend, supporting both workers and unions. His massive American Rescue Plan is a fine start, bringing relief to millions of workers caught in the pandemic’s economic crisis.
He has spoken out strongly on the drive to unionize an Amazon facility in Alabama, emphasizing workers right to organize and warning against company interference. Expressing solidarity with Amazon workers, he declared, “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.” A win over Amazon could be very big for labour in the service sector.
He wants and needs to do much more, including raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, also a campaign promise. And then there’s the proposed Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act which would greatly assist unions in restoring balance to the organizing process. It is of the greatest importance to the unions. Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO has said, “It’s a game changer. If you really want to correct inequality in this country—wages and wealth inequality, opportunity and inequality of power—passing the PRO Act is absolutely essential to doing that.” It has been passed by the House of Representatives and is supported by Biden.
But here is where things get sticky. The Republicans will attempt to filibuster both the increase in the minimum wage and the PRO Act to death in the Senate. Biden’s years of political experience and cultivation of fellow politicians will be put to the test.
Correcting inequality is of the utmost importance to our great neighbour and that requires a strong voice for labour. Trump is still around, still supported by many disillusioned workers, including union people, and neither Americans nor Canadians can afford any more Trumpism.