“Unions benefit us all”: How the White House is attempting to help workers reclaim their bargaining power
A new report focused on worker empowerment from Kamala Harris’s labor task force spotlights an issue that deserves attention. Plus: Why it’s a good thing congressional staffers are organizing a union.
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We’re still in the midst of the “Great Resignation,” an economic trend wherein employees have voluntarily resigned from their jobs in droves to pivot to new careers, demand humane work conditions and pursue their long-term goals.
Alongside this encouraging shift though is a demoralizing one: The union membership rate declined by 0.5 percentage points to 10.3 percent in 2021, according to data released in January from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This downtick offsets an increase in the prior year and returns the rate to what it was in 2019.
President Joe Biden has prioritized worker empowerment since the start of his administration, often saying unions “built the middle class” because they “lift up workers, both union and non-union.” Many aspects of our modern work lives — the 40-hour workweek, the weekend, and landmark programs like Medicare — are outcomes secured by unions.
“Unions benefit us all,” a White House official said.
To that end, the White House released a report from its Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment that includes 70 recommendations to promote worker organizing and collective bargaining for federal employees and for workers with public and private-sector jobs. These recommendations, which the president accepted, include ways to advise workers on their existing right to join and/or organize a union, and the legally defined process of how to do so.
“Unions continue their fight for higher wages, greater job security, safety and health protections, health insurance and retirement plans, and protections from discrimination and harassment for all,” the task force writes in its report. “This includes those who have historically been held back, such as women, LGBT workers, Black and Latino workers, workers with disabilities and older workers.”
The task force is led by Vice President Kamala Harris as chair and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh as vice-chair and was established through an executive order Biden signed in April 2021. Harris, Walsh and task force staff held more than two dozen meetings with labor unions, small and large employers, grassroots worker advocates, academics and former agency leaders to inform its work.
It is comprised of 20 participant agencies, offices and White House components, with 13 cabinet secretaries as members. And in six months, the task force will follow up with a second report to President Biden that describes its implementation progress and proposes additional recommendations for further action.
In a paper published in November 2020 by the Economic Policy Institute, Lawrence Mishel, Lynn Rhinehart and Lane Windham cite recent polling that shows that nearly half of non-union workers would vote for a union representation if given the opportunity to do so in their current job.
But labor law has become heavily tilted against workers and towards employees in recent decades, which undercut their ability to organize and bargain and also lead to wage suppression and deterioration of labor’s share of income. (Globalization and automation, the decline of the manufacturing industry and unmet demand for collective bargaining hasn’t helped either.)
As a result, fewer workers are clearing the three hurdles to unionization: Generating enough participation in elections, winning these elections and negotiating the first contract.
New laws are one remedy to this imbalance, the task force suggests. Biden and Harris support the PRO Act, a bill that would expand various labor protections related to employees’ rights to organize and collectively bargain in the workplace. (The legislation passed the House last year but is currently stalled in the Senate.) The president and vice president also support a bill that would expand public-sector worker collective bargaining rights for state and local government employees.
“Today, we face a unique moment when all of these factors have converged to create real opportunities for worker organizing, particularly of workers who have not traditionally had access to unions in the past,” the report reads. “To take advantage of these opportunities, this increased interest in unions must be met by corresponding and responsive changes in government policy and practices, such as those contemplated by the recommendations in this report.”
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In related news: The Congressional Workers Union announced last Friday its intention to unionize the offices and committees of the United States Congress.
“While not all offices and committees face the same working conditions, we strongly believe that to better serve our constituents will require meaningful changes to improve retention, equity, diversity and inclusion on Capitol Hill. That starts with having a voice in the workplace,” the CWU said in a statement. “We call on all congressional staff to join in the effort to unionize and look forward to meeting management at the table.”
Democratic Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan said that the House will take legislative action this week to enable congressional staff the freedom to form a union this week.
The announcement follows a January survey by the Congressional Progressive Staff Association that found 91 percent of staffers want stronger workplace protections and the attention attracted by @dear_white_staffers — a viral Instagram account posting their unvarnished experiences as congressional staffers of color to publicize the lack of diversity, low pay and inadequate leadership on Capitol Hill.
From Kayla Epstein at Insider:
The account solicits and then publishes the anonymous accounts for purported Capitol Hill staffers who share horror stories about terrible salaries, poor treatment by members and chiefs of staff, harassment and more. There is a particular focus on documenting racism and the lack of diversity on Capitol Hill. Though the accounts’ politics lean left, it reserves most of its ire for Democratic members for allegedly not living up to their pro-labor, pro-diversity values. And crucially, it’s not afraid to name names.
The push to unionize was buoyed by public statements from the top two Democrats in Congress.
Like all Americans, our tireless Congressional staff has the right to organize their workplace and join together in a union,” Drew Hammil, deputy chief of staff for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said in a tweet last Thursday. “If and when staffers choose to exercise that right, they would have Speaker Pelosi’s full support.”
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer agrees: “Leader Schumer believes that hard-working Senate staff have the right to organize their workplace and if they chose to do so, he would support that effort.”
According to a count by Taylor J. Swift, a policy advisor for Demand Progress, a progressive organization that works to win progressive policy changes for ordinary people, 72 House members and 11 Senators support staff unionization. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is currently the only caucus to lend its support to the movement.
Just as digital creators are some of the unsung heroes of the American economy, congressional staff are the federal government’s. And a union could pave the way for so many overlooked and underserved communities to serve in government so the halls of Congress reflect the diversity of the country.
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Government funding runs out in 11 days.
So Republican and Democratic lawmakers from the House and Senate have been hard at work to agree to a top-line number for an omnibus bill that will cover the budgets of all federal departments, agencies and programs for the next fiscal year.
But House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer said on MSNBC on Sunday that Congress will likely pass a short-term bill that will continue the pre-existing funding at the current levels until members can reach a deal.
“Negotiations are very vigorous and I think that we’re going to get an agreement both on the top line, how much spending is going to be and how it will be spent — but it’s not there yet,” Hoyer said. “I’m a great critic of the Congress not getting its work done on time. … But of course, the Senate is 50/50 and you need Republicans and Democrats to cooperate.”
The snag in negotiations is due in part to Republicans demanding equal spending for military and non-military programs. Meanwhile, Democrats view the exclusion of provisions like the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds to pay for most abortions, as a non-negotiable.
Meanwhile, over at the White House, it’s likely the Office of Management and Budget will wait until Congress reaches a deal before releasing its fiscal 2023 budget so it can build its proposal off the agreement from the president’s first budget versus Donald Trump’s final budget.
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TODAY IN POLITICS
→ President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing this morning with Vice President Harris. He will then welcome German Chancellor Olaf Shholz to the White House this afternoon for a meeting on topics including the Russia-Ukraine crisis, ending the pandemic and addressing climate change. Finally, the two leaders will hold a joint press conference.
→ Biden’s week ahead:
Wed Feb 9: The president will participate in a roundtable with CEOs of utility companies to discuss his Build Back Better agenda.
Thu Feb 10: Biden will travel to continue promoting his agenda.
Fri Feb 11: The president will travel Camp David for the weekend.
→ First Lady Jill Biden will speak this morning to over 700 community college leaders and advocates from across the nation at the 2022 Community College National Legislative Summit (NLS) in Washington, DC.
→ The House is in and will consider legislation to end forced arbitration agreements for sexual assault and harassment survivors in the workplace.
→ The Senate is in and will continue consideration of President Biden’s executive and judicial nominations.
→ Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer and other bipartisan members of Congress will hold a moment of silence for the more than 900,000 American lives lost to COVID-19 on the East Front Center steps of the US Capitol.
IN THE KNOW
→ Fathers older than age 34 were more open to having their child vaccinated against COVID-19 while younger Black and white mothers were the least open to it, according to a new study. The researchers determined that parents’ intentions to vaccinate a child declined as financial strain and harm from COVID grew. [Neil Schoenherr / Washington University in St. Louis]
→ Russia has amassed almost 70 percent of the combat power it believes it would need for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It is sending 14 additional tactical groups to the Ukrainian border to add to the 83 currently in the region. President Biden has promised significant economic sanctions if Russia invades. When asked by reporters on Sunday what factors President Vladimir Putin is considering in making his decision, President Biden said, “I think things he cannot get.” [Reuters via CNBC]
→ The Justice Department received a letter from Delta Air Lines CEO Edward Bastian asking it to respond to the surge in “air rage” incidents with a national “no-fly” list that would ban unruly passengers from boarding any commercial carrier. The Department declined a request from Supercreator for comment. [Andrew Jeong / WaPo]
→ Workers legally entitled to pay when their shift is cut short may not receive that money despite laws in eight states requiring some hourly workers to be compensated if they report to work. “Shift cuts undermine the well-being of workers and their families,” Savannah Hunter, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of California, Davis and co-author of the research paper. “The law may not be enforced consistently. We really need better support of labor in this country, generally.” [Karen Michele Nikos-Rose / UC Davis]
→ Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said he would be investing $100 million — the value of controversial podcaster Joe Rogan’s contract — for the licensing, developing and marketing of music and audio content from marginalized groups. Over the weekend, several videos of Rogan using the N-word and disparaging Black people resurfaced, but Ek said he disagrees that silencing Rogan is the answer. [J. Clara Chan / The Hollywood Reporter]
→ Twitter is testing a DM icon for its iPhone app to make it easier to “start a conversation” from your timeline. But users say that the feature would remove a barrier to entry for online abusers. [Emma Roth / The Verge]
READ ALL ABOUT IT
Joe Pinkser on the age of the unique baby name:
American naming is now in a phase where distinctiveness is a virtue, which is a departure from the mid-century model of success: Today, you excel not by fitting in, but by standing out. “Parents are thinking about naming kids more like how companies think about naming products, which is a kind of competitive marketplace where you need to be able to get attention to succeed,” Wattenberg told me. And whether or not parents nowadays choose a name with an eye toward its Google-ability, search engines and social media have certainly changed the way they think about the value (or the downsides) of having a name that is different from that of other internet users.
Nick Tabor on voter suppression and its Jim Crow origins:
If this moment represents a rare and novel crisis, it also reflects an old pattern. The use of election fraud claims to justify voter suppression has a deep history in the United States, and nowhere was it used more aggressively than in the post-Confederate South. During Reconstruction and the so-called “Redeemer” era, reports that Black voters intended to commit fraud served as grist for massive campaigns of voter suppression and intimidation. Ultimately, at the dawn of the Jim Crow era, this all culminated in a series of new state constitutions that systematically stripped Black men—and in many cases, poor whites as well—of their voting rights.
Melissa Gira Grant on how Trump is harkening back to the worst of post-Reconstruction America:
When I hear Trump attempt to rally a posse to Atlanta against a Black woman holding elected office, tell his followers that she holds illegitimate power over him, order them to protest against her “vicious” acts, in some ways, it resembles merely a continuation of a long terror campaign. The subtext is not subtle: Trump believes that power is fundamentally illegitimate and corrupt based solely on the fact of Black people holding it—never forget that he rose in Republican ranks thanks to his trumpeting of birtherism—a threat of presumed illegitimacy he then uses to mobilize white mass violence. There’s no sense in informing anyone that Trump’s invocation of law and order is a joke, when he openly defies the law and summons his flock to protect him from the consequences—in the very same speech in which he promised to pardon the people who attacked Capitol Hill Police officers assaulted on January 6. That doesn’t matter much when, to Trump, the law is white.
Kevin T. Dugan on the last days of the pandemic boom:
What this means for the future, though, is that this roaring economy isn’t likely to last much longer. Standing in its way is the Federal Reserve, and its chair, Jerome Powell, who is preparing to embark on a program to raise interest rates. Wall Street has been predicting as many as seven quarter-point interest-rate hikes this year from the central bank. Those higher interest rates typically hamper businesses and are likely to eat into job growth and wage gains in order to keep consumption down.
Megan McArdle on Facebook:
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, just had a truly horrific earnings call. The platform lost roughly half a million users in the fourth quarter of 2021, the first time its user base has declined in the company’s history. As in any business that’s dependent on network effects, there is a real risk that the shrinkage will accelerate, as each departing user makes the network less valuable to those who remain.
Rebecca Heilweil on Tesla:
But the reason strong safeguards for semi-autonomous cars don’t exist is that there’s no consensus about how these vehicles should be regulated. Is the driver or the car manufacturer responsible when a software-assisted vehicle does something dangerous? Should autonomous and semi-autonomous cars be programmed to follow the letter of the law, or to drive the way most people actually drive? Regulators haven’t fully answered these questions, and Tesla is taking advantage of the ambiguity.
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