Opinion | Biden’s surprise quotes on the Amazon union battle are a good sign

But labor advocates are saying it’s the most pro-union statement a president has ever made.

On the eve of the 2020 election, Biden promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” But much of what he has said and done is fairly standard for a Democratic president, including appointing pro-union officials to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and naming a labor secretary with ties to the labor movement. (Marty Walsh, Biden’s nominee, was a local union leader before he became mayor of Boston.)

So what’s different about what Biden said about the union drive at the Amazon fulfillment center, which is in Bessemer, Ala.? Let’s take a look:

In a White House video released Feb. 28, 2021, President Biden addresses workers voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. (The White House)

He did not explicitly tell the Bessemer workers to vote yes on the union. But he came about as close as one could without saying it directly. Not only that, but he made a broader case, to a wide audience, for why unions are important:

I’ve long said America wasn’t built by Wall Street, it was built by the middle class, and unions built the middle class. Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and brown workers.

And he emphasized that “it’s not up to an employer” to decide whether workers can join a union; that choice belongs to them alone. Even though he did not mention Amazon specifically, he did bring up “workers in Alabama” who are “voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace.”

That context — a particular unionization drive where he is pretty clearly on the side of unionization — is what makes this different.

“The real thing that I’m encouraged by is that the president was willing to go on the record about a specific organizing drive,” Celine McNicholas, the director of government affairs and labor counsel at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, told me, noting that previous Democratic presidents generally tended to go on record “in terms of a broader right to organize.”

And it’s significant that it’s happening at Amazon, which has become one of the emblematic companies of our age — in its consumer business, its key role in maintaining the infrastructure of the Internet and its ever-growing army of warehouse workers. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

If the drive succeeds, it would be the first Amazon facility in the United States to unionize, a precedent the company is keen to avoid. So Amazon has fought aggressively against the unionization drive, a campaign that includes online advertising, mandatory weekly meetings where Bessemer workers are lectured about the dangers of unionizing and anti-union signs posted throughout the warehouse.

This was a test for Biden, and it’s one that, so far, labor advocates are saying he passed.

“I do think that Biden wants to be every bit as pro-union a president as he campaigned as,” McNicholas told me. Labor advocates were also pleased when he fired Peter Robb, the previous general counsel of the NLRB, because Robb was widely seen as a foe of labor organizing.

Biden also issued a number of executive orders rolling back some of former president Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine the rights of federal workers; given that Trump waged a virtual war on workers of all kinds, there’s a lot to unwind.

But as long as the filibuster exists in its current form, further enhancements of workers’ rights will run into a brick wall in the Senate. An increase in the minimum wage has already fallen victim to the rules of reconciliation. Since Republican opposition to an increase is almost absolute, unless the filibuster is reformed, the minimum wage will stay where it has been for over a decade.

There are other legislative items on labor’s agenda, including the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which passed the House last year. They, too, will go nowhere in the Senate so long as the supermajority requirement remains.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of presidential rhetoric. For decades, Republicans and their corporate allies have waged an unrelenting war on unions, part of which has been a propaganda campaign aimed at discrediting the very idea that workers should have the right to bargain collectively. With his bully pulpit, Biden can remind people what unions are for and what they accomplish.

Unions are a threat to corporations because they shift power into workers’ hands, but they’re a threat to the Republican Party for a deeper reason: They politicize people, in the best way. They make workers see their workplace conditions not as a matter of whether their boss is a nice guy but as part of a system that operates from their workplace up through state and federal laws dictating their rights.

They make people see problems in collective terms — so it isn’t just about whether I get paid vacation, it’s also about whether people on the other side of the country get paid vacation, too. That’s a threat to Republican policies and politicians who want everyone to be isolated and in competition with each other.

No matter what happens with the union election in Alabama, if Biden really wants to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” it will take both actions and words. At a time when unions are in difficult shape (I haven’t even mentioned the Supreme Court’s concerted effort to destroy union representation in America), he has plenty of work to do.

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