The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White House offers blueprint for union growth as labor movement struggles to gain ground

Membership is near historic lows, but support for these worker groups is high among Americans

Joe Biden deliver remarks on the January jobs report at the White House on February 4. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The White House released a detailed blueprint Monday for how the federal government can work to increase union participation and strengthen workers’ right to organize in the absence of legislative actions, another sign of the Biden administration’s historic support for organized labor.

The 43-page report, produced by the White House’s Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, is a strikingly pro-union document, seeking to connect the history of union organizing in the United States to its importance for the country’s economic well-being.

“The Biden-Harris Administration believes that increasing worker organizing and empowerment is critical to growing the middle class, building an economy that puts workers first, and strengthening our democracy,” it begins.

The report comes at a time when union organizing in the United States is near a historic low, with just 10.3 percent of wage and salary workers belonging to a union in 2021, down threefold from a high in the 1950s. Just 6.1 percent of private-sector workers were members of unions.

But the public favorability of labor unions is its highest in more than 50 years, and at least 48 percent of nonunion workers have said on surveys that they would join a union if given the option.

“This gap between the percentage of workers who want a union and the percentage of workers who have a union is part of the reason for this Task Force and this report,” the report notes.

The labor movement faces some key tests. Workers plan to vote soon on whether to unionize at an Amazon facility in Alabama. And employees at a handful of Starbucks shops have also recently voted to unionize, sparking interest in whether this could lead to a national push.

The White House report lays out dozens of recommendations for the federal government to undertake to encourage worker organizing, rights protected by 1935′s National Labor Relations Act, without going through Congress.

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These recommendations include facilitating union growth in the federal government, where union membership rates are already higher than other industries. They also include having federal employers give more information about unions to new hires, informing employees about their collective bargaining rights and representation, and increasing the ability of unions to communicate with employees, such as by providing unions with work email addresses and access to physical and electronic bulletin boards.

The report also says the federal government should try to encourage unions among about 300,000 federal workers who are eligible to organize but not represented by bargaining units — seasonal wildland firefighters, for example.

“Like the rest of the Biden administration, this report shows nearly unprecedented attention to the demands of organized labor in the recent Democratic Party,” said Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island.

The task force, which was created by President Biden last April, includes most members of the Cabinet and is chaired by Vice President Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

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For private-sector workers, the group recommended tightening procedures around disclosure requirements for companies that hire anti-union consultants, such as having companies that are federal contractors identify themselves. That process is run by the Labor Department.

It also recommends that the federal government, through the Labor Department and other labor-focused offices such as the National Labor Relations Board, undertake a public-relations campaign to better notify workers of their rights, and that agencies like the Treasury Department explore more ways to reduce the cost of union dues, by increasing their eligibility as tax deductions, for example.

It calls for better coordination between the Labor Department and the NLRB on cases where workers are retaliated against for organizing, and more guidelines at the Department of Homeland Security for making sure that it has policies that ensure victims and witnesses of labor exploitation are not afraid to cooperate with enforcement agencies regardless of their immigration status.

The report comes amid a new political climate in which the plight of workers has become a more central focus. Growing concerns about income inequality and fears that the pandemic has worsened the problem have sharpened attention on lower-wage work.

The Biden administration has offered vocal support for unions, with the president releasing a video last year telegraphing his support for Amazon workers organizing in Alabama, for example.

And recently, prominent strikes at companies including John Deere and Kellogg’s and the newfound success of union organizing at companies such as Starbucks have drawn attention to the continued appeal of organized labor in some sectors.

Democrats and labor advocates have also been pushing for the Pro Act, a bill to update the country’s labor laws and strengthen workers’ rights and ability to organize. Many liberals hope it could turn the tide after decades of declining numbers. But that bill, which the House has passed multiple times, is virtually certain not to pass the Senate with a filibuster-proof majority.

Loomis, the University of Rhode Island professor, said the labor movement really needed the Pro Act “to facilitate successful organizing and reset the playing field between unions and employers,” but with its prospects nearly dead at the moment, the set of government actions proposed by the task force was perhaps the administration’s best shot at improving the climate for organizing.

“It’s a combination of long-standing union desires and forward-thinking ideas, such as the idea to establish a wildland firefighter workforce that firefighter unions could possibly organize,” he said. “Of course, much of it could be overturned by the next Republican administration, which is the problem with executive actions, but there’s not much one can do about that.”

The task force will submit a second report to Biden in six months describing the implementation of these recommendations, the White House said.

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