By: Mark Gruenberg
As expected, union leaders warmly welcomed the January 20, inauguration of Democratic President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, whom organized labor helped push to victory last fall.
But they split between endorsement and silence on a main theme of Biden’s inaugural address: Reaching for unity in a politically, culturally and ideologically deeply split country.
A typical comment came in an early tweet from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka: “Today we celebrate #InaugurationDay. We look forward to working with @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris to enact a pro-worker agenda.”
He later posted labor’s goals on the labor federation’s website, at www.workersfirstagenda.org and urged people to sign at a link there; demanding Biden and Congress enact its measures.
“Working people have been struggling far too long against unfair wages, benefit cuts and attacks on our right to form a union in our workplaces. That ends now,” declared Trumka.
“Our Workers First Agenda is about all of us, with no exclusions, because the real recovery working families need, expect and deserve is impossible without equity,” Trumka said, omitting the word “unity.”
Union leaders by and large took the same welcoming tack as Trumka did, often pairing it with goals they want the Biden-Harris administration to achieve.
“Today @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris are ready to build a brighter future for our country’s hardworking families. America’s essential workers need action to protect them on the frontlines and @UFCW will work with the @WhiteHouse to deliver,” the United Food and Commercial Workers tweeted.
That union is especially invested in anti-pandemic measures, as its 1.3 million members are heavily migrant, workers of colour or both, and include hundreds of thousands of grocery workers and meat and poultry plant packers.
All have been declared “essential,” and are more-exposed to the virus than other worker groups. Trump specifically ordered the packing plant workers back on the job even as their bosses often refused to protect them from the virus’s spread by providing masks, sanitizers, gloves and physical distancing. Tens of thousands have become ill and hundreds have died.
“Today is a new day, and all Americans must unite behind President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris as they prepare to lead our country through unprecedented challenges,” UFCW President Marc Perrone later elaborated. “Regardless of who any of us voted for, now is the time to heal and bridge our political divisions. We are all Americans first.”
Trumka, Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten and Machinists President Bob Martinez paired optimism with pro-worker agendas.
“The Machinists and our 600,000 members, no matter how they voted, are counting on this administration to lift our nation out of this time of despair and bring jobs, dignity and democracy back home,” Martinez said.
“We can all look forward to an administration that will set out to unite instead of divide. Now is the time to relearn how to respect those around us, regardless of our race, religion, gender or any other identity. This is America—and opportunity knocks for a great nation.
“We must return to putting the interests of the people ahead of corporations. We must advance the livelihoods and futures of working people and our communities.
“That means keeping workers safe, making it easier to form and join a union, affordable healthcare, secure retirements and much more. It means expanding ‘Buy American’ policies, fair trade and bringing jobs back home to the skilled and dedicated workers right here in America. It means real relief for the aerospace, defense, airline, manufacturing, healthcare workers and more who have bravely kept our nation and world moving through the COVID-19 pandemic,” Martinez said.
By helping Biden and Harris win, “We proved once again the power of working people standing together,” Amalgamated Transit Union President John Costa said. “Now is the time to help Joe Biden Build Back Better in the first 100 days to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and pass meaningful legislation that lifts up working people, expands public transit, and strengthens the labor movement.
“Now is the time to come together to pursue economic, social, and racial justice for all,” added Costa, whose 200,000 members include a large share of workers of colour.
AFT’s Weingarten spent a whole long e-mail text detailing positive pro-worker and pro-people provisions of Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill, named the American Rescue Act. She urged members to e-mail or call lawmakers and demand immediate passage.
The key provisions, Weingarten said, would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, expand paid family and medical leave, add $1,400 per adult to the $600 checks already sent and add $400 in weekly federal jobless benefits to whatever states pay currently pandemic-sidelined workers.
Becky Pringle, president of the independent National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, contented herself with a one-paragraph congratulatory statement: “Educators are encouraged not only by Biden’s leadership, but also in knowing there is finally a true partner in the White House who will listen, value the ideas, and act in the best interest of students, educators, and families.”
Biden’s spouse, Dr. Jill Biden, is a long-time teacher and NEA member.
Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry, whose union has been the major backer of the Fight for $15 and a Union drive among low-wage workers nationwide, concentrated on that goal—and on passing the Protect The Right To Organize Act.
“Today working people will take a moment to mark how far we’ve come, but tomorrow morning we will double down on the work that still needs to be done to ensure everyone can join a union, regardless of where they work or what job they do,” she said.
“Essential workers have a clear demand: Respect us, protect us, pay us. Our new president has called on Congress to pass a $15 minimum wage, and to work with him to ensure care giving jobs are good union jobs and to defeat the coronavirus. SEIU members and the millions more united in the Fight for $15 and a Union will not stop until this vision is a reality”. The unions are all hopeful that the Biden era will be marked by the increasing number of measures in favour of the labour who were denied their dues during Trump presidency. (IPA Service)