Inside Joe Biden’s decision to dive into the Amazon union drive

Inside Joe Biden’s decision to dive into the Amazon union driveMarch 2, 2021

Joe Biden’s endorsement of the right of workers at an Amazon facility in Alabama to unionize was the culmination of weeks of private talks with labor organizers and Democratic officials who viewed the standoff as an early test of the president’s commitment to their cause.

Unions are hoping the message, delivered by a video over Twitter, is a sign that organized labor will have staying power in the Biden White House and that it fuels support for a broader overhaul of federal labor law and expansion of union rights.

Democrats approached Biden advisers early this year to voice support for the factory workers. Discussions between White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, unions, and allied operatives took further shape in early February and continued through recent weeks. Those involved said they wanted Biden to weigh in with a forceful statement in support of the drive to become the first unionized Amazon facility in the U.S.

The White House, meanwhile, was undertaking a legal review to ensure any statement would be consistent with the president’s commitment to maintaining the independence of the National Labor Relations Board. Officials would not say when the review concluded. However, Klain privately indicated last week that he was looking to feature the president in a video message. Outside pressure for Biden to engage only grew from there.

Finally, late Sunday, the president released the 2 ½-minute video. While he omitted the name of the powerful e-commerce giant, his remarks were seen as an unmistakable show of solidarity with a labor movement that failed to secure anything similar from his recent predecessors.

“This is the most pro-union statement from a president in United States history,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told POLITICO. “The workers understand who he was speaking to. That is a clear message and it’s been interpreted as such by workers, observers and the media.”

Statements are one thing. Reversing the realities around organized labor’s demise are quite another. After decades of steady declines in union membership, labor’s clout in Washington has significantly diminished. Biden’s refusal to name Amazon, a powerful company that contributed to his inauguration and has pledged to help his administration fight the Covid-19 pandemic, did not go unnoticed by Democrats and labor activists.

But union officials said they believed the omission was intentional. By not explicitly telling workers to vote “yes” on the union, the leaders contend Biden was promoting the ideals of the National Labor Relations Act by allowing workers to decide for themselves whether or not to join a union.

“Biden’s fighting for workers, he’s not fighting against any specific company,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), said in an interview. Brown said it was obvious that the Biden statement was directed at the Alabama election. “Amazon executives understand this. Executives in my state understand. I always come down on the side of workers and Biden’s reputation is increasingly that he comes down on the side of workers.”

It’s unclear how much pull the Biden video will actually have on undecided workers at the Amazon plant. Biden’s remarks came more than halfway into the seven-week election to determine whether workers should be represented by the RWDSU, raising concerns from some close to the process about how much the president would be able to move the needle. There also is the issue of Alabama being a right-to-work state, meaning that even if the Amazon union drive is successful, workers at the Bessemer fulfillment center could opt-out of membership, effectively weakening whatever union is created.

“A lot of workers have voted,” noted Chelsea Connor, director of communications for the warehouse union. “For workers, their focus right now is getting all their colleagues to vote.”

Appelbaum, the president of the RWDSU, added that many of those who haven’t voted are likely still undecided. “Now we’re building support throughout the facility,” he said. “People are going to be mailing ballots for the next four weeks.”

Biden’s decision to wade in publicly on behalf of a unionization push, particularly at a time when private-sector organizing faces difficulty in holding it’s ranks, marked a major shift in how presidential administrations have addressed labor politics.

Labor historians believe the last time a president demonstrated so much support for a union drive was in 1944, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the seizure of Montgomery Ward’s properties after the merchandising giant repeatedly refused to comply with labor agreements brokered with the RWDSU. Before a federal judge could rule on the legality of the move, the union completed its election and employees returned to work.

During the Obama years, meanwhile, the president routinely disappointed union activists by averting major fights, even after he had pledged as a candidate to walk the picket line. Biden made similar promises on the trail, but he’s signaled he is intent on keeping more true to them while in office.

“This is different for a president. But it’s consistent for Joe Biden,” said Faiz Shakir, a former top aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders and founder of More Perfect Union, which is helping with the Amazon unionization effort and was in communication with the White House. “This was a great opportunity for him and the first major step to speak out.”

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), one of the first officials to approach Biden’s team about Alabama, said he had urged advisers to “understand the gravity of the moment.” Unionization elections with around 6,000 workers are increasingly rare, in part because workers lack the kind of protections Levin has been pushing for in Congress.

“If these workers can pull this off, it’s going to be the David and Goliath of the 21st century in American labor relations,” said Levin, who was sharply critical of Amazon’s tactics in the drive and plans to travel to Alabama this week to support the workers. “We haven’t seen a president like this. Just forget I’m a member of Congress,” added Levin, a former AFL-CIO official and one-time labor law reform commission member during Bill Clinton. “I’m really moved by it.”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants Union, said even if Biden’s message didn’t tip the scale in the election, it still “changes everything.”

“This message was not just about Bessemer, it wasn’t just about this one Amazon shop. It was about workers rights everywhere,” Nelson said. She added that by advertising the benefits of joining a union, Biden is also building support for his labor agenda — which calls for a broad overhaul of federal labor law that would make it far easier for workers to form unions.

And AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is using the president’s new message to advocate for the swift passage of Democrats’ Protecting the Right to Organize Act. If passed, the measure would be the first bill to overhaul labor rights since the Taft-Hartley amendments of 1947 to the National Labor Relations Act, which outlawed some organizing tactics and allowed states to enact right-to-work laws. The new bill, among other things, would extend collective bargaining rights to gig workers, overturn state right to work laws, and allow the federal labor board to levy penalties against companies who violate federal labor law. Biden, Trumka wrote in a Monday statement, “has proven he’s willing to speak out and stand with us. Now it’s time to follow words with action.”

The mere fact that Biden’s statement came as a video was also no small deal for unions who prefer the format as a tool to marshall support among the rank and file on the ground. Indeed, outside allies have been using videos to reach the workers, including targeted digital ads in Bessemer that feature Sanders.

Biden’s move could calm nascent fears that the Democratic Party is losing touch with blue collar workers, particularly around trade and immigration issues. He’s pledged to find a way to pass the $15 minimum wage, and also backed the Pro Act, the long wishlist of union priorities heavily opposed by business and Republicans.

While labor leaders hope his remarks bode well for that bill, they also say it’s refreshing just to have a president who is comfortable speaking their language. On a recent visit to the Oval office, Brown said he stopped Biden to give him a message.

“I said ‘I really appreciate it,’” Brown told Biden. “As a candidate and as president he freely uses the word ‘union.’ Many candidates haven’t done that. Most presidents haven’t done that.”

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