Biden may be the most pro-labor president ever. That may not save unions.

President Joe Biden talks with with Kristin and James Smith, the owners of Smith Flooring, a union shop, in Chester, Pennsylvania, on March 16, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
Two months into the new administration, labor leaders are proclaiming Joe Biden to be the most union-friendly president of their lifetime — and “maybe ever,” as Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) , said in an interview.اضافة اعلان

Biden has moved quickly to oust government officials whom unions deemed hostile to labor, and to reverse Trump-era rules that weakened worker protections. He has pushed through legislation sending hundreds of billions of dollars to cities and states, aid that public-sector unions consider essential, and tens of billions to shore up union pension plans.

Perhaps most notably, the president appeared in a video alluding to a union vote underway at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, warning that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda” — an unusually outspoken move by a president in a standard union election.

Yet Rosenthal and other labor advocates confess to a gnawing anxiety: Despite Biden’s remarkable support for their movement, unions may not be much better off when he leaves office than when he entered it.

That is because labor law gives employers considerable power to fend off union organizing, which is one reason that union membership has sunk to record lows in recent decades. And Senate Republicans will seek to thwart any legislative attempts — such as the PRO Act, which the House passed this month — to reverse the trend.

“The PRO Act is vital,” Rosenthal said. “But what happens now in terms of Republicans in Congress, the Senate filibuster, is anyone’s guess.”

Until recently, it was far from clear that Biden would govern in such a union-friendly way. Though he has long promoted the benefits of unions and cited close relationships with labor leaders, the president has also maintained ties to corporate figures like Steve Ricchetti, a counselor to the president who was a lobbyist for companies including AT&T and Eli Lilly. Biden voted over the years for free-trade agreements that unions opposed.

Then there is the fact that he served as vice president in an administration that sometimes annoyed unions, as when President Barack Obama weighed in on behalf of a school district in Rhode Island that fired the faculty of an underperforming school. Biden also captained an Obama administration team that negotiated with Republicans over deficit reduction, an effort that raised hackles within labor.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden’s allies and advisers argued that he had merely acted as a loyal deputy to his boss, and that he would prove more in sync with labor as president.

But for many in labor who had doubts, Biden has exceeded expectations. Shortly after his swearing-in as president, the White House asked for the resignation of the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel, Peter B. Robb, whose office enforces the labor rights of private-sector employees.

Robb was deeply unpopular with organized labor, which viewed him as overly friendly to management. His term was set to expire in November, and presidents of both parties have allowed general counsels to serve out their time in office.

But with no letter of resignation from Robb forthcoming on Inauguration Day, the White House fired him.

“What was really promising and exciting to those of us who care was the firing of Peter Robb and the dramatic way it came down,” said Lisa Canada, the political and legislative director for Michigan’s state carpenters union.

 “Because of growing inequality, our economy is on a trajectory to implosion,” said Richard Trumka, president of  the AFL-CIO. The PRO Act “will increase wages and slow that trajectory,” he added.

Under current law, employers can inundate workers with anti-union messages — through mandatory meetings, email, signs in the workplace — while unions often have trouble gaining access to workers. And though it is technically illegal to threaten or fire workers who take part in an organizing campaign, employers face minimal punishment for doing so.

Labor board cases can drag on for years, after which an employer frequently must only post a notice promising to abide by labor law in the future, said Wilma B. Liebman, a former board chairwoman. There are no monetary penalties for such violations, though workers can be made whole through back pay.

The PRO Act would outlaw mandatory anti-union meetings, enact financial penalties for threatening or firing workers and help wrongly terminated workers win quick reinstatement. It would also give unions leverage by allowing them to engage in secondary boycotts — say, asking customers to boycott restaurants that buy food from a bakery they are trying to unionize.

Glenn Spencer, a senior vice president at the US Chamber of Commerce, criticized the bill as “a radical rewrite of labor law” and said the provision on secondary boycotts could be highly disruptive for their targets.

“Those companies don’t have anything to do with the nature of the labor dispute, but they’re suddenly wrapped up in it,” Spencer said.

Even with the legal protections envisioned under the PRO Act, however, it will be hard for unions to make large-scale gains in coverage, many experts say. Labor law often effectively requires workers to win union elections one work site at a time, which could mean hundreds of separate elections at Amazon alone.

The system is “optimized to build weak labor movements,” said David Rolf, a former vice president of the Service Employees International Union, who favors industrywide unions and bargaining.

And the PRO Act’s chances for enactment are remote so long as opponents have recourse to the Senate filibuster, which effectively requires 60 votes to pass legislation.