By Amara Omeokwe and Hannah Lang
WASHINGTON -- Labor unions are urging President Biden to move
quickly to fulfill his campaign promise to champion organized labor
and workers' rights, including by pushing for legislation to
bolster unionizing efforts.
Already, Mr. Biden has taken steps applauded by several labor
groups. Yet some of Mr. Biden's early moves could create conflict
with business groups and their congressional allies.
Mr. Biden has called on Congress to raise the federal minimum
wage to $15 an hour and has picked Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a
former union leader with close ties to organized labor, for Labor
The president on Friday signed executive orders including
provisions that would restore collective bargaining power for
federal workers, among other labor-focused measures. On the
campaign trail, he said he would create a cabinet-level group to
focus on promoting union organizing and collective bargaining.
Mr. Biden backs passage of legislation sought by labor groups to
increase union membership and boost employee protections. The bill
would weaken state-level right-to-work laws, which prohibit unions
from compelling membership as a condition of employment, and block
firms from replacing striking workers, among other measures.
Congressional aides say lawmakers will introduce the bill, called
the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, again in the
current session of Congress.
The president this week fired Peter Robb, an appointee of former
President Donald Trump who was the National Labor Relations Board's
general counsel, and Alice B. Stock, who had been Mr. Robb's
deputy. The firings came after both officials refused to
Labor groups criticized the NLRB during Mr. Robb's tenure for
actions they said were hostile toward workers and organized-labor
efforts, such as a settlement with McDonald's Corp. that helped
shield the company from liability for the employment practices of
its hundreds of U.S. franchisees.
"Robb's removal is the first step toward giving workers a fair
shot again, and we look forward to building on this victory by
securing a worker-friendly NLRB and passing the PRO Act so all
working people have the freedom to form a union," Richard Trumka,
president of the AFL-CIO, in said a statement Wednesday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) on Thursday
criticized Mr. Robb's removal, calling it "unprecedented" because
the termination came before the end of the general counsel's term.
The NLRB is an independent federal agency responsible for
overseeing private-sector union elections and investigating unfair
Mr. Robb couldn't be reached for comment. In a letter sent
Wednesday to the White House, he declined to resign and said his
removal would "set an unfortunate precedent for the labor relations
of this country that will permanently undermine the structure and
thus the proper functioning of the NLRB."
Democratic candidates in the 2020 election cycle received more
than 87% of the $74 million donated by labor PACs and
union-affiliated individuals, according to the nonpartisan Center
for Responsive Politics. That $65 million in union-connected
donations made up only a little more than 1% of the $5.4 billion in
contributions to Democratic presidential, House and Senate
candidates last cycle.
Still, organized labor continues to hold significant sway within
the Democratic Party because of its voter-mobilization prowess in
key states and donations to super PACs and other outside political
groups, such as Priorities USA Action. According to the Center for
Responsive Politics, labor groups donated $142 million last cycle
to such groups, which air TV ads and organize voters online, among
Michael J. Lotito, chairman of law firm Littler Mendelson P.C.'s
Workplace Policy Institute and an attorney who represents
businesses, said he expected Mr. Robb's firing and any support for
the PRO Act to cause tension between the Biden administration and
the business community.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is among business groups that have
opposed the PRO Act. Glenn Spencer, senior vice president of the
employment policy division at the chamber, said portions of the
legislation, such as a provision that would prohibit employers from
participating in workplace elections to decide on unionizations, go
"It's a pretty dramatic change to labor law and one that makes
the entire process tilted in favor of unions as opposed to striking
the balance between the parties that the National Labor Relations
Act has always tried to keep in place," Mr. Spencer said.
He said he expects the bill to face a more uncertain path in
this Congress than previously, following the narrowing of the
Democratic House majority and amid a closely divided Senate.
Congressional aides to Democrats on the House Committee on Labor
and Education said they were optimistic about the legislation's
United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble said recent years had
brought anti-worker policies in federal agencies such as the NLRB
and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Mr. Gamble is
urging for the passage of the PRO Act, which he says protects
workers from the "whims of different administrations."
"UAW members are encouraged by the Biden Administration's
start," Mr. Gamble told The Wall Street Journal. "Not only do we
believe President Biden will see the world through the lens of
everyday workers, we also know he is focused on future auto
assembly and making sure those jobs stay right here in
The UAW, a Detroit-based union with members in fields ranging
from auto manufacturing to higher education, had struggled for
years to broaden its influence in the automotive industry and other
fields. Organizing efforts at Tesla Inc. and Volkswagen AG have
failed in the past several years.
Years of downsizing at the Detroit car companies have dinged the
UAW's auto-making membership, which stood above 215,000 members
last year, or about 28% of the auto-making workforce in the
Union membership overall declined in 2020 along with total U.S.
employment, as a result of the economic effects of the coronavirus
The number of union members fell by 321,000 to 14.3 million in
2020 from 2019, bringing their share of the workforce to 10.8%, the
Labor Department said Friday. That proportion was up from the prior
year, but down from its recorded peak of 20.1% in 1983, when the
department started reporting the data.
Lower levels of membership reflect both the declining influence
of unions and the obstacles that have made it difficult to build
their ranks in recent years, said Marick Masters, a business
professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who studies
organized labor. Mr. Masters said corporate resistance and a U.S.
workforce shifting away from traditionally unionized sectors, like
manufacturing, are factors.
Even with a sympathetic administration and the potential for new
pro-labor legislation, it might not be so easy to bolster union
membership, Mr. Masters said -- or at least not enough to turn the
"There is no reason to believe that the dynamics have shifted to
create a more favorable environment for unions," he said, noting
the Obama administration made promises similar to Mr. Biden's yet
still saw union membership hit record lows.
Still, Mr. Biden's early administrative actions have garnered
support from unions thus far.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which
represents federal and D.C. government workers, praised an
executive order from Mr. Biden that revoked a Trump-era directive
prohibiting diversity and inclusion training in federal
Mr. Biden's administration on Wednesday also asked federal
agency heads to consider postponing the effective date of finalized
rules yet to take effect. That could include a Labor Department
rule finalized last month that would make it easier for businesses
to classify workers as independent contractors, who aren't
and Chad Day contributed to this article.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 22, 2021 16:57 ET (21:57 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.