June 20, 2021

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Biden’s—and the Democrats’—Path to Winning Back Blue-Collar Workers

6 min read

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump promised to be the best friend American workers had ever had. In his four years as President, Trump has been the opposite. He has done nothing to raise the $7.25 federal minimum wage. His Administration adopted no regulations to protect workers from the coronavirus. He rolled back an Obama-era regulation extending overtime pay to millions of American workers. He championed a $1.5 trillion tax cut that favored the rich and corporations. He broke his promise to enact a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan that would create hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs. His appointees took repeated steps to weaken labor unions. Frustrated worker advocates have compiled a list of fifty anti-worker actions the Trump Administration has taken.

Throughout the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden told Americans that he, not Trump, was the true friend of labor. Biden called the race “a campaign between Scranton and Park Avenue” and promised to “be the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” He endorsed a fifteen-dollar minimum wage, twelve weeks’ paid family leave, and a robust “buy America” program, and pledged to make public universities tuition-free. But, according to exit polls, Trump beat Biden among voters without a college degree (a frequent definition of blue collar) by fifty per cent to forty-eight per cent. Among white voters without a college degree, Trump trounced Biden, winning sixty-seven per cent to thirty-two per cent. Yet, next Wednesday, Biden will take the oath of office.

Many progressives will push Biden to move swiftly to get Congress to enact pro-worker measures, such as the fifteen-dollar minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, and policies that would make it easier for workers to unionize. That could create a political storm among Democrats, however, because some centrists might oppose such measures as being too costly or hostile to business. That opposition might prevent the House or Senate from passing them, especially as the Democrats have such narrow control over both chambers.

Still, the former Vice-President could, arguably, prove to be the most pro-union President since Franklin Roosevelt. His campaign platform noted that “strong unions built the great American middle class,” and called for creating a Cabinet-level working group that would “solely focus” on promoting unionization and collective bargaining. And, during the campaign, Biden argued that strengthening unions would help end wage stagnation and reduce income inequality. Given Democrats’ poor performance with blue-collar voters, he recognizes his party’s need to demonstrate that the Democrats—not Trump and the Republicans—are the champions of American workers. Most of all, Biden and other Democrats hope to reverse the notion that they have turned their backs on average Americans and become the party of the coastal élite, of Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

But Biden faces extraordinary crises, and he will be under pressure to deliver quickly to American workers. His immediate challenge is to avert a recession. He is inheriting two emergencies—a badly mishandled pandemic and a battered economy—from Trump. The Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, says that “26.8 million workers—15.8% of the workforce—are either unemployed, otherwise out of work due to the pandemic, or employed but experiencing a drop in hours and pay.” Adding to the woe, up to forty million Americans could soon face eviction, and ten per cent of families with children under age five say they don’t have sufficient food.

The recently enacted nine-hundred-billion-dollar relief and stimulus package should keep the economy and many families and small businesses above water, at least for a few more months. That measure is less than half the amount that Democrats had sought, though, and Biden and many economists say that an additional relief package will soon be desperately needed. But, when Biden pushes for a new package, he will likely run into the same roadblock that Barack Obama did: Mitch McConnell. Though the Republicans no longer control the Senate, their ability to filibuster requires Biden to gain sixty votes to pass certain measures—and many Republicans argue that it’s no time to increase the already swollen federal-budget deficit.

On the labor front, Biden faces another urgent matter: issuing regulations that direct businesses to take specific steps to protect workers from the coronavirus. Many public-health experts have been appalled by the Trump Administration’s failure to issue any such regulations. Labor leaders pressed Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia to adopt such regulations, but Scalia refused. Since the onset of the pandemic, many meatpacking, retail, and other workers have contracted the disease, including twelve hundred and ninety-four workers at Smithfield’s pork-processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and eighty-one at a Walmart in Worcester, Massachusetts. Trump’s Labor Department imposed paltry penalties on major corporations that experienced large COVID-19 outbreaks—such as a $13,494 fine against Smithfield’s Sioux Falls plant. (Smithfield’s parent company has twenty-four billion dollars a year in revenues.)

One union leader told me that the new President will need to take “very visible” actions both to show that he’s delivering to workers and to increase blue-collar support for Democrats. Last week, many labor leaders and progressives applauded Biden when he became the first Democratic President since Woodrow Wilson to nominate a former union president as Secretary of Labor: Boston’s mayor, Marty Walsh, who once headed the city’s federation of building-trades unions. In his six years as mayor, Walsh expanded affordable housing, made community colleges tuition-free for graduates of Boston’s public schools, and increased apprenticeship programs for low-income workers and the number of racial minorities working on construction projects. The son of Irish immigrants, Walsh said he hopes, as Labor Secretary, to put power back in the hands of working people, increase union membership, and create millions of high-paying jobs in infrastructure, clean energy, and high-tech manufacturing.

Biden has also endorsed the union-backed Protecting the Right to Organize Act (the PRO Act), a bill that the House passed in February with numerous provisions that would make it easier for unions to increase membership. Labor leaders also hope that the new President will use his bully pulpit to promote unions. They would love to see him travel to Alabama to back a unionization drive at an Amazon warehouse there. They would also like him to shower some encouragement on the newly formed union of Google workers and to castigate Amazon and Google for firing several workers involved in labor organizing.

The central question, though, remains whether Biden can enact pro-worker and pro-union legislation and garner the sixty Senate votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. In the past half century, G.O.P. filibusters have blocked efforts by Presidents Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Obama to enact legislation that would have made it easier to unionize. Last February, the House passed a bill that would phase in a fifteen-dollar minimum wage by the end of 2025, but McConnell prevented a Senate vote on it. Even with Democrats controlling the Senate, a Biden push to enact a higher minimum wage might falter if McConnell and other business-friendly Republicans seek to sink it with a filibuster. If they do, Biden should make clear to blue-collar Americans which party is preventing millions of workers from getting raises.

On Tuesday, Biden signalled his intention to use the Democrats’ narrow, new majority in the Senate to rapidly enact a higher minimum wage. “It’s long past time to raise the minimum wage, so hardworking people earn at least $15 an hour,” Biden tweeted. “I hope that Democratic control of the House and Senate will ensure prompt action to get it done.”

Raising the minimum wage is a first step that Biden can take to demonstrate that he is more pro-worker than Trump. But Biden, Walsh, and Democrats in Congress will need to take numerous pro-labor steps to convince many blue-collar Americans that the new President is, indeed, on their side. Biden has serious work to do.


Read More About the Presidential Transition

  • Donald Trump has survived impeachment, twenty-six sexual-misconduct accusations, and thousands of lawsuits. His luck may well end now that Joe Biden is the next President.
  • With litigation unlikely to change the outcome of the election, Republicans are looking to strategies that might remain even after rebuffs both at the polls and in court.
  • With the Trump Presidency ending, we need to talk about how to prevent the moral injuries of the past four years from happening again.
  • If 2020 has demonstrated anything, it is the need to rebalance the economy to benefit the working class. There are many ways a Biden Administration can start.
  • Trump is being forced to give up his attempt to overturn the election. But his efforts to build an alternative reality around himself will continue.
  • Sign up for our daily newsletter for insight and analysis from our reporters and columnists.



Steven Greenhouse


2021-01-13 12:00:15


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