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Why Biden May Not Be Able to Save Unions

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Two months into the new administration, labor leaders are proclaiming Joseph R. Biden Jr. to be the most union-friendly president of their lifetime — and “maybe ever,” as Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said in an interview.

Mr. Biden has moved quickly to oust government officials whom unions deemed hostile to labor, and to reverse Trump-era rules that weakened worker protections. He has pushed through legislation sending hundreds of billions of dollars to cities and states, aid that public-sector unions consider essential, and tens of billions to shore up union pension plans.

Perhaps most notably, the president appeared in a video alluding to a union vote underway at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, warning that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda” — an unusually outspoken move by a president in a standard union election.

Yet Mr. Rosenthal and other labor advocates confess to a gnawing anxiety: Despite Mr. Biden’s remarkable support for their movement, unions may not be much better off when he leaves office than when he entered it.

That’s because labor law gives employers considerable power to fend off union organizing, which is one reason that union membership has sunk to record lows in recent decades. And Senate Republicans will seek to thwart any legislative attempts — such as the PRO Act, which the House passed this month — to reverse the trend.

“The PRO Act is vital,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “But what happens now in terms of Republicans in Congress, the Senate filibuster, is anyone’s guess.”

Until recently, it was far from clear that Mr. Biden would govern in such a union-friendly way. Though he has long promoted the benefits of unions and cited close relationships with labor leaders, the president has also maintained ties to corporate figures like Steve Ricchetti, a counselor to the president who was a lobbyist for companies including AT&T and Eli Lilly. Mr. Biden voted over the years for free-trade agreement that unions opposed.

Then there is the fact that he served as vice president in an administration that sometimes annoyed unions, as when President Barack Obama weighed in on behalf of a school district in Rhode Island that fired the faculty of an underperforming school. Mr. Biden also captained an Obama administration team that negotiated with Republicans over deficit reduction, an effort that raised hackles within labor.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Mr. Biden’s allies and advisers argued that he had merely acted as a loyal deputy to his boss, and that he would prove more in sync with labor as president.

But for many in labor who had doubts, Mr. Biden has exceeded expectations. Shortly after his swearing-in as president, the White House asked for the resignation of the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel, Peter B. Robb, whose office enforces the labor rights of private-sector employees.

Mr. Robb was deeply unpopular with organized labor, which viewed him as overly friendly to management. His term was set to expire in November, and presidents of both parties have allowed general counsels to serve out their time in office.

But with no letter of resignation from Mr. Robb forthcoming on Inauguration Day, the White House fired him.

“What was really promising and exciting to those of us who care was the firing of Peter Robb and the dramatic way it came down,” said Lisa Canada, the political and legislative director for Michigan’s state carpenters union.

Yet it is the Alabama video that most clearly highlights the differences between Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama on labor. When state workers flocked to Madison, Wis., in 2011 protesting Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to roll back their bargaining rights, union leaders pleaded with the White House to send a top administration official in solidarity. The White House declined, though Mr. Obama did say the plan seemed like “an assault on unions.”

“We made every imaginable effort to get someone there,” said Larry Cohen, who was then president of the Communications Workers of America and is now chair of the progressive advocacy group Our Revolution. “They would not allow anyone to go.”

By contrast, Mr. Biden seemed eager to offer his statement alluding to the Amazon election, which a number of labor leaders had urged him to deliver.

“We haven’t seen this level of elected support for organizing since Franklin Roosevelt,” said Mr. Cohen, who expected the Amazon statement to discourage anti-union behavior among employers.

Still, Mr. Cohen and other labor officials said that absent a change in labor law, union membership was likely to follow a path under Mr. Biden that was similar to the one it took under Mr. Obama, when the share of workers in unions dropped about 1.5 percentage points. Over all, union membership has fallen from about one-third of workers in the 1950s to just over one-tenth today, and a mere 6 percent in the private sector.

“Because of growing inequality, our economy is on a trajectory to implosion,” said Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., in an interview. The PRO Act “will increase wages and slow that trajectory,” he added.

Under current law, employers can inundate workers with anti-union messages — through mandatory meetings, email, signs in the workplace — while unions often have trouble gaining access to workers. And though it is technically illegal to threaten or fire workers who take part in an organizing campaign, employers face minimal punishment for doing so.

Labor board cases can drag on for years, after which an employer frequently must only post a notice promising to abide by labor law in the future, said Wilma B. Liebman, a former board chairwoman. There are no monetary penalties for such violations, though workers can be made whole through back pay.

The PRO Act would outlaw mandatory anti-union meetings, enact financial penalties for threatening or firing workers and help wrongly terminated workers win quick reinstatement. It would also give unions leverage by allowing them to engage in secondary boycotts — say, asking customers to boycott restaurants that buy food from a bakery they are trying to unionize.

Glenn Spencer, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, criticized the bill as “a radical rewrite of labor law” and said the provision on secondary boycotts could be highly disruptive for their targets.

“Those companies don’t have anything to do with the nature of the labor dispute, but they’re suddenly wrapped up in it,” Mr. Spencer said.

Even with the legal protections envisioned under the PRO Act, however, it will be hard for unions to make large-scale gains in coverage, many experts say. Labor law often effectively requires workers to win union elections one work site at a time, which could mean hundreds of separate elections at Amazon alone.

The system is “optimized to build weak labor movements,” said David Rolf, a former vice president of the Service Employees International Union, who favors industrywide unions and bargaining.

And the PRO Act’s chances for enactment are remote so long as opponents have recourse to the Senate filibuster, which effectively requires 60 votes to pass legislation.

Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, appeared before the executive council of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. this month to make the case for exempting certain types of legislation from the filibuster. In a statement after the meeting, the council members called for “swift and necessary changes” to Senate rules to remove the filibuster as an obstacle to progressive legislation.

Mr. Biden has since indicated that he is open to weakening the filibuster, though it is not clear whether the PRO Act would benefit.

Mr. Trumka said he was confident that Mr. Biden would seize the opportunity that Mr. Obama had let pass when Democrats enjoyed a large Senate majority but still failed to change labor law. “This president understands the power of solving inequalities through collective bargaining,” Mr. Trumka said.

But others are skeptical that Mr. Biden, for all his outspokenness on behalf of unions, will be in a position to deliver.

“The proof is in the pudding,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “We know where his heart is. It doesn’t mean anything will change.”





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In Washington, Policy Revolves Around Joe Manchin. He Likes It That Way.

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WASHINGTON — If Democrats eliminate the filibuster, there is one senator who would have an outsized impact in the 50-50 chamber on issues that could reshape the nation’s future: infrastructure, immigration, gun laws and voting rights. That senator is Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

There is also a senator whose opposition to eliminating the filibuster is a significant reason it may never happen. That senator, too, is Mr. Manchin.

“He should want to get rid of the filibuster because he suddenly becomes the most powerful person in this place — he’s the 50th vote on everything,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, sketching out the argument.

Mr. Manchin, however, does not see it that way. To the exasperation of Democrats, delight of Republicans and bewilderment of politicians who can’t understand why he wouldn’t want to wield more power, Mr. Manchin, a former governor of the state, isn’t budging.

“Sixty votes,” he said in an interview last week in his office, referring to the threshold required to advance most legislation, adding that he would not consider suspending the filibuster for certain bills, as some of his colleagues have floated: “You’re either committed or not.”

But with 18 people dead after two mass shootings within a week, a worsening migrant challenge on the border and Republicans trying to restrict voting in almost every state where they hold power, liberals believe this moment cries out for a different sort of commitment. At a time when they have full control of Congress and are confronting overlapping crises, many Democrats feel a moral and political imperative to act, process be damned.

That puts Mr. Manchin, 73, at the center of the most important policy debates in Washington — and has set the stage for a collision between a party eager to use its majorities to pass sweeping legislation and a political throwback determined to restore bipartisanship to a chamber that’s as polarized as the country.

Mr. Manchin believes that ending the legislative filibuster would effectively destroy the Senate. He recalled his predecessor, Robert C. Byrd, telling him that the chamber had been designed to force consensus.

Mr. Manchin has expressed willingness to support a “talking filibuster,” in which lawmakers have to actually hold the floor, perhaps for many hours, to block a vote. But he has not yielded on getting rid of it altogether and on an array of issues, including voting rights and gun control, his admonition is less about any particular policy end and more about making sure the legislation has support from both parties.

More broadly, Mr. Manchin’s resistance to ending the filibuster has ripened fundamental questions about which version of Congress would be more dysfunctional: a body stymied by gridlock or one that can pass legislation only by scrapping longstanding guidelines so it can push through party-line votes?

“You can’t make the place work if nothing significant is getting passed,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a leading progressive from California.

Mr. Manchin worries that the short-term benefit of ditching the filibuster would backfire for Democrats over the long term.

“I’m concerned about the House pushing an agenda that would be hard for us to maintain the majority,” Mr. Manchin said about the progressive legislation that House Democrats are stacking up at the Senate door. As for pressure from the left, he said, tauntingly: “What are they going to do, they going to go into West Virginia and campaign against me? Please, that would help me more than anything.”

To a growing number of his Democratic colleagues — and not just liberals — it’s naïve to keep putting hope over history, and believe, as Mr. Manchin said about gun legislation, that Republicans may say, “Listen, it’s time for us to do the reasonable, sensible thing.”

Of course, few in a Senate that depends on Mr. Manchin for a 50th vote will say outright that their colleague is indulging in fantasy.

“Joe’s focus, I believe, is bipartisanship, and I agree with the starting point,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, before lowering the boom: “They weren’t going to give us a single vote,” he said about the stimulus bill.

A former high school quarterback who friends say still relishes being at the center of the action, Mr. Manchin is something of a unicorn in today’s Congress. As a pro-coal and anti-abortion Democrat, he reflects a less-homogenized era when regionalism was as significant as partisanship and senators were more individual actors than predictable votes for their caucus.

Twice elected governor before claiming Mr. Byrd’s seat, he’s the only lawmaker standing in the way of an all-Republican congressional delegation in West Virginia, a state that former President Donald J. Trump carried by nearly 40 points last year. And he is an unlikely majority-maker of the Democratic Senate.

“We really are the big tent,” said Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, before knowingly adding: “Now it’s a lot of work when you have a big tent, right? But that’s the way we have a majority.”

While out of step with his national party on some issues, and written off by parts of the left as little better than a Republican, his politics are more complex, even confounding, than they appear at first glance.

He provided the deciding vote on two of the biggest liberal priorities of this era — blocking repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017 and on passage of the nearly $2 trillion stimulus bill this month — while also twice voting to convict an impeached president wildly popular in his home state.

And while he may admire Mr. Byrd’s dedication to Senate tradition, Mr. Manchin has not emulated his predecessor by leveraging his power to focus relentlessly on steering spending projects back to West Virginia.

When Mr. Manchin was holding out on a single amendment that was delaying passage of the stimulus bill, White House aides were perplexed because his price for supporting the measure was not additional money for his impoverished home state. His main request, West Wing officials said, was to pare back spending and consider Republican input that could have made the bill appear more moderate.

Mr. Manchin said President Biden warned him in a phone call that the progressive left in the House might balk if the bill were significantly trimmed. “I said, ‘Mr. President, all we’re trying to do is put some guard rails on this,’” he recalled.

He was less happy about Vice President Kamala Harris’s effort to nudge him on the legislation by making an appearance on a television affiliate in West Virginia to promote the bill without forewarning him. The clip went viral and, Mr. Manchin said, prompted cleanup conversations with Mr. Biden and the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain.

As for any pressure that he may feel on the filibuster, Mr. Manchin said he had reminded Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, of how essential he was to providing Democrats a majority.

He said he had told Mr. Schumer, “I know one thing, Chuck, you wouldn’t have this problem at all if I wasn’t here.”

He is not the only impediment to the sort of expansive liberal agenda preferred by many congressional Democrats or even the only one still defending the filibuster. Other Senate Democrats, including Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, also share his reluctance.

Yet none are as eager as Mr. Manchin to restore a bygone day of collegiality. And perhaps, more to the point, none are as happy as him to talk about the need to do so as he navigates representing a once-heavily Democratic state that had been shifting to the G.O.P. even before Mr. Trump arrived on the scene.

He crossed the aisle last year to endorse his closest Republican ally, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and is already co-hosting bipartisan lunches with her. He is plotting the post-pandemic restoration of his pizza-and-beer parties on the boat he calls home while in Washington. (It’s called “Almost Heaven,” the opening lyric to John Denver’s ode to West Virginia.)

Although some of his colleagues relish the ideologically-charged prime-time cable news programs, Mr. Manchin prefers another Washington institution that also flourished in less-polarized times: the Sunday morning show.

In the fashion of many former governors who grow exasperated with Washington’s glacial pace, at times he can barely contain his impatience. He’s repeatedly mused about leaving the Senate and trying to reclaim his old job in Charleston.

But those who know Mr. Manchin well believe he likes the attention that he receives in the capital, the same as he did as a signal-caller in Farmington, W.V., where he grew up near Nick Saban, the legendary football coach at the University of Alabama and a lifelong friend of Mr. Manchin.

“You’re in the hot seat when you’re a quarterback, but it’s pretty satisfying when you make progress,” said Nick Casey, a Manchin ally and former chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party. Mr. Casey said the senator, who sustained an injury that cut short his playing days, was “the greatest QB who never got to start at West Virginia University — just ask him.”

Steve Williams, the mayor of Huntington, W.V., who served with Mr. Manchin in the state legislature, said: “This is the closest he has been to how he could be as governor, actually driving the agenda, pulling people together.’’

It’s the last part that most animates the senator. Happily bantering with reporters as he positions himself as a lonely, if well-covered, voice for comity, he shifts questions from policy to process.

“Why don’t you ask people when was the last time they took time to talk to some of the people on this side?” Mr. Manchin told a CNN reporter this week. “Try to convince them, or work with them. Have you had dinner with them? Have you had a lunch with them? Have you had a cup of coffee with them? Try something.”

A number of anti-filibuster Senate Democrats, though, are more focused on what Mr. Manchin’s support of the “talking filibuster” could portend.

“I think that gives us a lot of room for discussion,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, adopting a glass-is-half-full perspective.

What does seem clear is that Mr. Manchin is not going to switch parties.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen, although we’d welcome him with open arms,” said Ms. Collins, who has tried in the past to persuade her friend to join Republicans.

It’s not difficult to see why Mr. Manchin remains in his forefathers’ party. A Catholic of Italian descent, he sought John F. Kennedy’s desk when he arrived in the Senate, displays a picture of the slain president in his office lobby and can recall hearing that Massachusetts accent in his kitchen when Kennedy’s brothers came to his parents’ house during the West Virginia primary in 1960.

“Joe reminds me a lot of the old conservative Democrats in Texas,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas. “They were born Democrats. They’re going to die Democrats.”

As for the filibuster, Mr. Coons, who was sworn in alongside Mr. Manchin in 2010, said liberals shouldn’t get their hopes up.

Recalling a conversation with somebody who knows Mr. Manchin well, Mr. Coons said this person told him: “If the ghost of Robert Byrd came back to life and said the future of West Virginia itself is on the line he might … think about it.”



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C.D.C. Funding Gun Violence Research For First Time in Decades

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That was the argument he used to help persuade Congress to appropriate money for gun violence research in 2019. The research itself was never banned outright, and in 2013, weeks after the massacre that killed 26 people at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, President Barack Obama directed the C.D.C. to reconsider funding studies on gun violence.

The agency commissioned a report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council outlining priorities, but little changed. By 2019, after Democrats reclaimed the House, liberal organizations like MoveOn.org were petitioning Congress to repeal the Dickey Amendment. Nearly every House Democrat signed on.

But Dr. Rosenberg argued it should remain intact, to “provide cover for Republicans and gun-loving Democrats who can put money into the science and tell their constituents, ‘This is not money for gun control.’ ”

Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chaired the House subcommittee that oversees the C.D.C.’s budget at the time, said she put $50 million into the appropriations bill that year, but the Senate, controlled by Republicans, eliminated it. The two chambers agreed on $25 million as a compromise, but she said she hoped to double the funding this year.

Dr. Naik-Mathuria, the Houston trauma surgeon, said she would like to see Washington address the problem of gun violence as a matter of injury prevention, not politics. She began researching methods to reduce gun violence about six years ago, she said, after seeing “kids come in dead because they shot themselves in the head when they found a gun at home.”

Her current study is aimed at determining risk factors for gun violence for children and adults, and her past work has led to some changes in medical practice, she said.

Pediatricians in Texas, she said, are hesitant to talk about gun safety out of concern that “it would anger parents or become political.” So she and her group made a broader safety video that tucked in messages about gun safety — like keeping guns locked and stored — with tips like how to keep children away from poison.



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Who Are Gavin Newsom’s Enemies?

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There’s still time for a lot to change: If the organizers of the recall effort reach the signature threshold, the vote to recall Mr. Newsom and to choose his successor — both would be done on a single ballot — probably wouldn’t occur until near the end of the year.

That recall effort is being led by Orrin Heatlie, a conservative and a former sergeant in the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department, who as recently as last year shared anti-vaccination and anti-L.G.B.T.Q. views online. But the endeavor has the backing of a number of deep-pocketed political action committees, most of them right-leaning.

Randy Economy, a political consultant and talk-radio host, serves as the lead adviser to Recall Gavin Newsom, the group organizing the effort. He said the governor’s behavior and demeanor had made the recall necessary. “It’s because of Gavin Newsom himself, and the way he conducts himself every day since he’s become governor,” Mr. Economy said in an interview. “It’s all been more about his image and self-aggrandizing, as opposed to fixing the problems.”

Mr. Newsom’s approval rating isn’t nearly as low as Gov. Gray Davis’s was in 2003, when voters ousted him in a recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger, running as a moderate Republican, was the beneficiary of that effort, winning the recall election and going on to serve as governor for more than seven years.

California politics are different — and decidedly more Democratic — than they were 18 years ago. Democrats now have a 2-to-1 advantage in terms of voter registration across the state. Just because there is a Republican-led effort does not mean that a Republican will be the one to ultimately benefit. Mr. Economy, who volunteered in 2016 for Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign but has also worked for Democrats in the past, insisted that his team’s goal was not partisan in nature.

“Our job is not to pick the next governor; our job is to make sure that this governor’s recalled and removed from office,” he said.

The state is light on prominent (let alone popular) G.O.P. politicians, and some ambitious Democrats already appear ready to run through the open door. All of which points to a possible irony: Even if it were to become only the second successful recall effort in California history, the push — led by conservative interests — could ultimately lift up another Democrat, possibly one to the left of Mr. Newsom.



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