The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden walks the union line, making a play for blue-collar workers

A union member holds a sign outside the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Ala., where a group is trying to organize workers.
A union member holds a sign outside the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Ala., where a group is trying to organize workers. (Jay Reeves/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) called soon-to-be White House counselor Steve Ricchetti in December with a plea: Urge Joe Biden, who was about to become president, to support Amazon employees in Alabama waging a historic push to form a union. It could be a defining moment in Biden’s relationship with the working class, Levin, a longtime labor organizer, told him.

By February, the pitch from Levin and a chorus of labor leaders paid off. Seth Harris, now a top labor adviser to Biden, wrote a script for a Biden video promoting the union effort. Biden’s speechwriters tinkered with it, the president added some personal touches, the White House recorded it — and on Feb. 28, it went online.

The decision to publish the video, described by people with knowledge of its creation, was hailed by allies as proof that Biden is committed to being, as he promised, “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”

Its influence will be tested shortly. Monday is the final day for Amazon workers to vote on unionization, though it may take time to finalize the results.

The video culminated a series of early policy, political and personnel decisions by Biden to champion organized labor, perhaps more aggressively than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Biden’s actions mark a notable shift from the Obama administration, which sometimes kept unions at a distance amid their declining membership and clout. Biden has a long relationship with the union movement, and the Democratic Party now is seeking urgently to appeal to working-class voters after former president Donald Trump reshaped the political landscape.

Many Democrats admit Trump outmaneuvered them with his direct, blunt appeals to White workers. Biden’s stance is part of a larger competition between the parties to attract an emerging coalition of workers spanning generational, ethnic and geographical lines, and to define a new populism for the post-Trump era. The majority of the workforce at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama is Black.

“We allowed Trump to get away with his false claims that he cared about working people when he ran in 2016, and we can never let anything like that happen again,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is leading the Amazon organizing drive.

“I hear a keener understanding of that from Democrats than I’ve ever heard before — that the fate of the Democratic Party is tied to the fate of the labor movement, and that Democrats need to articulate better our party’s core support for working people,” Appelbaum said.

But Biden’s strategy complicates his agenda on a range of fronts, from climate change to education to wages. He is caught in tensions between environmentalists and unions that depend on the fossil fuel industry; between teachers unions and parents over reopening schools; and between service workers unions demanding a $15 minimum wage and congressional leaders who lack the votes to enact one.

Those conflicts emerged most starkly when Biden rescinded a construction permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline on his first day in office, a move that could imperil jobs.

“I think he should have played it a little differently,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a Biden ally, adding that the president should have combined the announcement with a more robust focus on job creation.

As Biden navigates these sensitivities, which his aides acknowledge is tough, Republicans have also begun jockeying to define themselves as pro-worker populists, demonizing big technology companies and searching for new ways to win support from working-class voters.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a potential 2024 presidential candidate, released a plan last month to require some companies to raise the minimum wage. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote an op-ed voicing carefully calibrated support for the Amazon union drive.

Those gestures would have been highly unusual for traditional Republicans such as Hawley and Rubio before Trump’s victory. But now ambitious conservatives are looking for ways to re-create Trump’s electoral coalition, casting aside some longtime GOP orthodoxies that painted the party as an unwavering ally of big business.

Republicans predict that Biden’s loyalty to unions could backfire politically, citing the challenges he has faced navigating competing demands in reopening schools.

“While public opinions of unions have rebounded, voters are still skeptical of their leadership, and often the policies that unions will want Biden to pursue will put him at odds with most voters,” said Republican pollster Chris Wilson.

Adding to the pressure on Biden is Trump himself, who has left open the possibility that he might run for president again in 2024. In 2016, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, skepticism of international trade and promise to restore factory jobs resonated in the Upper Midwest.

Biden successfully countered that pitch in 2020 with a pro-worker “Build Back Better” platform. Many Democrats see that as a model for future elections, though Biden is still working to refine it, with a big moment coming in the next several days as the president unveils a major infrastructure package.

In his first two months, Biden has aggressively sought to cement support from unions and workers. Behind the scenes, he and his advisers have been in frequent contact with union leaders, according to senior administration officials.

Union leaders were speaking with so many White House staffers that Harris and Carmel Martin, a White House economic adviser, recently organized a meeting to sort through all the different messages labor leaders were giving Biden aides, according to senior administration officials. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Soon after he was sworn in, Biden fired National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Peter Robb, who was seen by unions as a hostile figure. He tapped Marty Walsh as labor secretary, making him the first person in that post to come from a union background in nearly a half-century.

Biden urged the House to pass legislation boosting workers’ capacity to organize, which it did this month. He has vocally embraced a $15 minimum wage, though some advocates question whether he has done enough to enact it. And his sweeping pandemic relief bill includes an $86 billion union pension bailout.

“We’re trying to paint a unified message of inclusion and this whole country can rise together,” said Cedric L. Richmond, senior adviser and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. “Our focus is on working families and the hell that they are catching in day-to-day life.”

But Biden’s most notable action, union officials say, was releasing that two-minute-plus video calling attention to the union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.

“Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace,” Biden said in the Feb. 28 video, which has been viewed online millions of times.

“This is vitally important — a vitally important choice,” Biden said, the presidential seal prominently displayed over his right shoulder. He added a warning: “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” and “no supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences.”

Voting in the Bessemer union drive concludes Monday. If the employees opt for RWDSU representation, Bessemer would become the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the country. Given the company’s overwhelming size and central role in American life, a successful unionization effort would be a landmark moment.

In Alabama, workers who support unionization said Biden’s intervention was an encouraging surprise. “It did change a lot of votes,” said Darryl Richardson, 51, whose call to RWDSU about working conditions started the union drive. “People didn’t know it was going to be this big.”

Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) lauded the president’s efforts during a trip to Alabama on Friday to rally support for the union drive. “I very much applaud the president for doing what I don’t recall any president in recent history doing,” he said.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Biden’s efforts.

While Biden has positioned himself staunchly alongside the Amazon workers, he also has some associations with the company through his vast political network. Jay Carney, Biden’s communications director when he was vice president, is now a senior vice president at Amazon. Jeff Ricchetti, the White House counselor’s brother, registered last year to lobby for the company.

When it comes to the video, however, labor leaders and their allies said they could not remember such an explicit show of support for a unionization effort from a president. To some, it emphasized the differences between Biden and Obama.

As a candidate, Obama promised workers he would “put on a comfortable pair of shoes” and “walk on that picket line with you” if their rights were denied. Many union officials were then disappointed when Obama did not travel to Wisconsin to join protests against then-Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) efforts to curb collective bargaining for public employees or campaign against him in a subsequent recall election.

Richard M. “Rick” Gallo, president of the Kenosha County AFL-CIO Central Labor Council in Wisconsin, said that when “all that stuff hit the fan,” his feeling toward Obama was, “Now’s the time to get your sneakers.” Biden, in contrast, “is willing to put it out there,” Gallo said.

Obama’s supporters say he consistently supported labor, even if his style was not to hang out in union halls. Biden, who frequently talks up his working-class roots in Scranton, Pa., appears more at ease in such venues.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who spearheaded the pension provision in the pandemic relief bill, rated Biden as the most “pro-worker, pro-union president of my lifetime,” citing a recent conversation between the two of them.

“I just thanked him for using the word ‘union,’ ” Brown recalled. “And he came up to me afterwards, and he said, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ ”

In the months ahead, however, these alliances will be strongly tested. Biden’s next big initiative, a plan to repair the nation’s infrastructure, will include an emphasis on renewable energy, a sector that is far less unionized than older manufacturing industries.

And as Biden continues to push his covid response effort, he is trying to make good on a promise to open most elementary and middle schools by the end of April, while teachers unions have opposed the newly relaxed public health guidelines that make it easier to do so.

Biden has yet to deliver on a core campaign priority: raising the federal minium wage to $15 an hour. He tried to include that provision in the pandemic relief bill but was rebuffed by the Senate parliamentarian.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) recently hosted a press call with union officials, including Trumka, urging Biden and congressional leaders to find a way to pass a wage hike this year.

“It’s not enough to just say, ‘Oh, we’re committed to this, we want to get it done,’ ” Khanna said.

Success or failure in the minimum-wage fight could have electoral implications for Biden and his party, Democratic strategists and officials said. Beyond consolidating the gains Biden made among White working-class voters in the Upper Midwest, Democrats are seeking to rally an emerging coalition of younger Black and Latino workers across the country.

From the food service industry to the retail sector, many are closely attuned to the wage fight and will be directly affected by its outcome.

The issue could play out as soon as the 2022 congressional elections. Open Senate races in heavily unionized states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania present pickup opportunities for Democrats, and their prospects will almost certainly be affected by workers’ views of Biden.

A victory for workers seeking to unionize in Alabama could spur new energy and raise expectations for Democrats in that ruby red state.

“Some people say that Biden is probably the most pro-union president that we’ve had in America’s existence,” said Eric Hall, 39, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter in Birmingham, Ala., which has mobilized behind the union drive. “I think it’s a good thing that we have this administration’s support. But I think we also need his support to go further.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Vice President Harris helped organize a meeting to discuss messages from Union leaders. It was organized by White House labor adviser Seth Harris. This version has been updated.

David Weigel in Birmingham, Ala., and Alice Crites contributed to this report.