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 Department secretary.

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 resign.

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 labor practices.

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 other activities.

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 too far.

"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 prospects.

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 America."

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 U.S.

Union membership overall declined in 2020 along with total U.S. employment, as a result of the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

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 trend around.

"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 agencies.

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 typically unionized.


Nora Naughton

and Chad Day contributed to this article.


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 22, 2021 16:57 ET (21:57 GMT)

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