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Union, Jack!

Biden’s Embrace of Unions Is a Boon for Democracy

The White House’s support for labor organizing will become critical if Democrats get locked out of power at the federal level in November.

President Joe Biden addresses members of North Americas Building Trades Unions at their annual legislative conference.
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images
President Joe Biden addresses members of North America’s Building Trades Unions at their annual legislative conference.

Last week, President Joe Biden met with several labor organizers, some fresh from offering testimony on Capitol Hill, in the Oval Office. The confab, put together by Vice President Kamala Harris, was set up so that the president and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh could pick the brains of the organizers behind headline-grabbing unionization drives at Starbucks and Amazon. That the White House had the gathering at all was a potent statement from the administration. Just look at the cringey coda to the episode, in which Starbucks executives fired off a letter to the White House demanding their own meet and greet. “We are deeply concerned that [Starbucks] Workers United was invited … while not inviting official Starbucks representatives,” boo-hooed A.J. Jones, a company senior vice president.

The demand is hilarious given what faction the White House would be better off associating with right now. The labor organizers have been charismatic winners, lifting up their workplaces and communities. Meanwhile, last time I checked, in April, Starbucks’s CEO, Howard Schultz, was planning on going all in on nonfungible tokens, or NFTs. (Schultz has given more detail about his plans; the NFT market has responded by tanking.) For the Biden White House, it was an easy choice: dynamic union organizers or managerial-class losers trying to manufacture vibes from last year’s big crypto fad.

That said, it’s easy to imagine another Democratic White House making a different choice and setting up a meeting with Starbucks’s C-suite latte sippers in a deranged attempt to “hear both sides.” It was, after all, Barack Obama’s own press secretary, Jay Carney, who made a heel-turn transformation into Amazon’s top flack, where he’s now messaging against labor. And Hillary Clinton’s top choice for labor secretary–labor secretary!—was, you guessed it, Howard Schultz—a fact I had forgotten and now have to live with remembering. It was only last month that the Democratic Party proposed that its consultants be banned from anti-union activity, a rather obvious thing that Democratic Party consultants should not ever be doing.

But if Biden’s throwback ideas, such as his faith that the Republican Party’s “fever” would break, aren’t always suited to the moment, his steadfast belief in a labor market that forces employers to compete for workers instead of the other way around is rhyming harmoniously with the here and now. Biden’s done more than pose for pictures. Shortly after being sworn into office, he sent Peter Robb, Donald Trump’s appointed counsel to the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, his walking papers. A month later, his pick, Jennifer Abruzzo, was in place, and with her came a muscular enforcement of Biden’s pro-labor agenda.

True to form, a day after last week’s Oval Office meet and greet, the NLRB filed a lawsuit against Starbucks for “interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees seeking to unionize” in Buffalo, New York. Labor reporter Hamilton Nolan put this in perspective: “The NLRB suit against Starbucks today that is (reasonably) being called ‘unprecedented’ and ‘massive’ can also be accurately described as ‘the federal government enforcing existing labor law,’ which is something many of us have never seen in our lifetimes.”

Biden’s alignment with organized labor isn’t just beneficial to the workers themselves. With most of the voting rights measures Democrats had hoped to pass dead in the Senate, labor organizing is now a vital plank in Biden’s pro-democracy platform. Unions are reasserting their traditional role as the organizers of the working class to counter the GOP’s faux-populist appeals and its efforts to subvert elections. As TNR contributor Steven Greenhouse explained, the labor leaders who have taken up the fight for democracy hold Biden in high regard: “While labor leaders often criticize Carter, Clinton, and Obama for not doing enough to strengthen unions, they give higher praise to Joe Biden. Biden and his administration seem eager to reverse the decline in union membership and union power, all while many Republicans are clearly intent on hastening labor’s decline.”

That the Biden administration has lent its shine to organized labor is good for the near-term concerns of both workers and our democratic system. But it’s also a wise and necessary step should a more dire future emerge. If history and polling are any guide, Democrats aren’t likely to fare well in the upcoming midterms; it could be that they’ll struggle to hold the White House in 2024. The power to enact progressive policies could end up shut off at the federal level for a number of years, perhaps a decade or more. Facing that possibility, Democrats should act to bolster labor’s hand as much as possible—soon enough, it might become the only game in town where liberal governance and activism is concerned.

The time is now for anyone who cares about the future of our democracy to support labor organizers on every front they’re currently fighting. If you look back to the activity of labor unions from last year’s “Striketober” to the current campaigns to win contracts at Amazon and Starbucks, you’ll see a wide variety of workers trying to forge a better future under the union banner: baristas and miners and teachers and journalists, retail workers and delivery drivers and meatpackers, employees from Amazon and John Deere and Kelloggs—a cross-section of the populace that truly looks like a United States of America, cutting across geography, race, and class; capable of solidarity, reconciliation, and unity. Here, we might find the roots of a future, among workers with better causes to fight for than the tawdry tribal politics of the moment, and better enemies to battle than one another. Something has to save democracy; perhaps we’ve found its champion.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.