“Everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity. And that’s what the labor union is all about: dignity.”
President Biden credited his late father with regularly reinforcing that message, and the commander in chief shared it during his remarks at a Sept. 8 White House ceremony celebrating Labor Day. Also speaking at the event were Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh (a former union member) and AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, among others.
Biden, always enthusiastic when discussing the labor movement, expressed strong confidence in Shuler, who recently was elected to lead the federation after the unexpected passing of AFLCIO President Richard Trumka. Previously, she had served as secretary-treasurer since 2009.
“I know you didn’t expect to be in this role at this moment,” Biden said to Shuler during the ceremony, “but as I told you before, I believe that the future of American labor is in very good hands. I really mean it.”
He continued, “In my White House, labor will always be welcome. I intend to be the most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history.”
After observing a moment of silence for workers who’ve died from COVID-19 and for both Trumka and retired AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who passed away Aug. 5 and Feb. 1, respectively, Biden stated, “One of the things I admired about Rich is that he understood what people in this economy are really facing…. He understood what had happened to workers in this country, like you do. Rich understood the past and the challenges, like so many of you who lived and led through these moments. But he also understood the future. He understood who built this country and the tools that were needed to build it back and build it back better.”
Biden reminded the audience (including those watching online) that unions “fundamentally transformed how we live and how we work in this country.”
He cited “the victories won by labor: the eight-hour day; the weekend; time-and-a-half for overtime; safety standards; sick days – victories for all of us. When you all do that, everybody benefits, whether they belong to a union or not. When unions win, workers across the board win. Families win, community wins, America wins. We grow. And despite this, workers have been getting cut out of the deal for too long a time.”
He described a long period of shared prosperity from the late 1940s until 1979, at which time “everything began to change. Productivity in the country has grown almost four times faster than pay since 1979. That means the workers have been giving much more to their employers’ bottom lines than they’ve gotten back in their paychecks, breaking the basic bargain of this country. The bargain was: If you work hard and you contribute to the welfare of the outfit you work with, you got to share in the benefits. Well, that stopped for a long time. That’s what got taken away for a lot of people. Instead, some people started seeing the stock market and corporate profits and executive pay as the only measure for economic growth.
“By the way, the stock market has gone up exponentially since I’ve been president,” he continued. “You haven’t heard me say a word about it…. My measure of economic success is how families, like mine growing up – working families busting their neck – how they’re doing; whether they have a little breathing room; whether they have a job that delivers some dignity, a paycheck they can support a family on. Simply put, worker power is essential to building our economy back better than before.”
He described key executive orders he has signed to boost workers’ rights and reiterated his total backing of labor’s top legislative priority, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. “When Congress passed the 1935 Labor Relations Act, it didn’t just say you can have unions – (that) it should be allowed,” Biden stated. “It said that we, the government, should encourage unions and collective bargaining, making it easier. And I believe every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice. That belongs to workers, not to their employers or to special interests.”
He said there are numerous reasons for workers to choose union representation.
“We know the economic reasons: Union members get higher wages, better benefits, like health insurance and paid leave, protections against discrimination and harassment, and a safer and healthier workplace,” Biden explained. “But there’s another reason – a basic American reason. Workers who join unions gain power – power over the decisions and the decision-makers that affect their lives. Workers’ voices are heard and heeded. In a simple word, a union means there is democracy. Democracy. Organizing, joining a union – that’s democracy in action. And it’s about dignity on the job, but it’s also about creating good jobs.”
Shuler thanked the president and Vice President Kamala Harris for “leading the most proworker administration in U.S. history.”
She said the labor movement “is the single most powerful force for progress in the United States. In the past two centuries, industry by industry – in factories, mines, and mills – we challenged inhumane conditions. We created safety standards. We transformed grim, dangerous work into good, sustainable union jobs. This administration gets it. That’s how unions built the American middle class.”
She credited the union members who’ve helped keep the economy afloat during the pandemic before turning to the future of organized labor.
“We’re building a modern, inclusive labor movement,” Shuler said. “A movement in every sector and every community, with women and people of color moving from the margins, to the center. Unions are the best way to guarantee equal pay, close wage gaps and fight discrimination at work. We create pathways to the middle class for veterans, for those who’ve been sidelined – for everyone. The power of a good, sustainable union job is life-changing. That’s why 68 percent of Americans and 77 percent of young people support labor unions. That’s the highest approval ratings in over half a century.”
She added, “Everything is lined up. We’ve got the public on our side, workers standing up and taking risks, and the most pro-union administration in history. This is our moment! And shame on us if we don’t take advantage of it. But with labor laws written in 1935, and the corporate attacks that have chipped them away over time, today it’s actually easier to stop a union than it is to form one.”
Walsh spoke at the event and also issued a proclamation that read in part, “This is a Labor Day like no other. The pandemic has changed how our country thinks about work – and working people. It has showed us how much we depend on essential workers, including many vulnerable and low-paid workers. And it proved that we can transform our working conditions. So, as we celebrate adding more than 4.5 million new jobs to the economy since January, I invite workers and employers all across our country to imagine a better, more just and more sustainable partnership.
“To establish this new reality, the Department of Labor will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with workers morning, noon and night,” he continued. “From investing in a care economy that allows workers to thrive in their jobs while caring for their families, to building a more inclusive workforce and ensuring that the loss of a job doesn’t mean the loss of financial wellbeing, we stand with America’s workers – and the unions that support them. The Biden-Harris administration’s ambitious agenda will address the persistent injustices and inequities that organized labor has been fighting for more than a century, and my colleagues and I are proud to help carry out this critical effort.”