Across the country, workers—from autoworkers and delivery drivers to health care workers and baristas—are in motion asserting their right to form unions, and once they have them, they are demanding a much-needed raise. Support for unions among the American public in recent years is the highest it has been in decades, and approximately half of nonunion workers say they would join a union if they could.
The Biden administration has met this moment by fighting for reforms to help working people exercise their rights on the job. This is an uphill battle: Outdated federal labor laws stack the deck against workers and allow corporations to fight unionization efforts through both legal and illegal means. Moreover, MAGA Republicans oppose reforms—such as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act—that would ensure all Americans who want to join a union are able to do so. Only two House Republicans (and no Republicans in the Senate) sponsored the PRO Act this session, while support among democratic lawmakers is nearly unanimous. Conversely, more than half of House and Senate Republicans (but no congressional Democrats) are advancing reforms, such as the National Right to Work Act, that would weaken workers’ ability to come together in strong unions.
Yet the Biden administration is using its legislative, regulatory, and administrative powers to support unions and working people. This helps working people across the economy, not just union members. When unions are strong, research shows that nonunion companies increase their wages in order to compete for workers; that the gap between the rich and everyone else shrinks; and that children born into poverty have a better shot at climbing the economic ladder as adults.
This column details the ways in which President Joe Biden and his administration are supporting strong unions.
1. Supporting workers on the picket line
President Biden made history this fall when he visited members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union on the picket line in Belleville, Michigan, during the union’s strike against Ford, GM and Stellantis. This marked the first time a sitting president has visited a picket line. President Biden made his support for workers’ demands clear: “You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now.” This stands in stark contrast to the actions of former President Donald Trump, who visited a nearby nonunion facility during the strike and pushed UAW members to endorse him rather than endorsing their demands.
Throughout his presidency, Biden has offered support for workers organizing unions and exercising their right to bargain, calling these efforts “democracy in action” and offering support to specific organizing efforts, such as those at Starbucks, Tesla, Toyota, and Amazon.
2. Investing in good union jobs
The Biden administration’s signature economic investments—enacted through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act—promise to create millions of good jobs across American communities through investments to support physical, digital, water, and clean energy infrastructure. At the heart of this economic strategy is a commitment to create high-quality jobs and support workplace equity, with standards and incentives written into competitive grants and spending programs across the federal government. Funding applicants are making commitments to take action in support of good jobs for local residents. This includes adopting protections to uphold workers’ collective bargaining rights, creating high-quality workforce training programs, signing project-specific contractual agreements to pay fair wages and hire local workers and workers from economically and historically disadvantaged backgrounds, and partnering with labor and community groups to support accountability.
3. Making lawbreaking corporations play by the rules
President Biden’s appointees to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are longtime advocates for working people and are upping the ante when it comes to enforcement of workplace standards. Under the leadership of former Secretary and longtime labor leader Marty Walsh and now Acting Secretary Julie Su, the DOL has expanded resources to educate workers on their labor and workplace rights; created new partnerships between workplace safety enforcement offices and the NLRB, the federal agency charged with enforcing private sector bargaining rights; improved required disclosures for companies that hire consultants to persuade workers not to join a union and created a tip line that employees can call to report bosses who fail to disclose this activity; and introduced new initiatives to target industries where violations of wage standards are rampant, which are critical to unions since they help ensure that bargained standards are not undercut.
Center for American Progress analysis finds that the NLRB has ordered corporations to reinstate more illegally fired workers in the first year of the Biden administration than it did during all four years of the Trump administration.
CAP, "The NLRB Protects Workers’ Right To Organize, Yet Remains Underfunded" (2022).
Similarly, the NLRB has updated regulations to boost efficiency in union elections and support communications between workers. The agency has also issued numerous complaints and rulings against high-profile companies such as Starbucks to remedy illegal activities such as retaliatory firings, withholding wage and benefit increases, and closing stores, and NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo is pursuing reforms to protect workers from high-pressure campaigns designed to undermine unionization efforts. Center for American Progress analysis finds that the NLRB has ordered corporations to reinstate more illegally fired workers in the first year of the Biden administration than it did during all four years of the Trump administration.
4. Giving contract workers a raise and better jobs
The Biden administration has also taken action to improve the lives of millions of workers who are not directly employed by the government but who provide essential goods and services on which Americans across the country rely. The federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars every year to purchase goods and services. Yet too often, laws and regulations designed to ensure that contractors respect workers’ rights on the job and provide fair pay that does not undercut union wages fall far short of their promise, leading to poverty wages and poor working conditions. The Biden administration updated Davis-Bacon standards to prevent federal construction contractors from paying below-market wages; supported stability for service workers when contracts are rebid; and raised the contractor minimum wage to $15 per hour and indexed it to inflation. In addition, the administration required construction contractors to enter into project labor agreements, helping support good value for public investments and creating high-quality jobs on large projects. In contrast, Republicans in Congress are blocking legislation to raise the federal minimum wage and introduced legislation to overturn the updated Davis-Bacon standards.
5. Taking an all-of-government approach to supporting worker organizing
In spring 2021, President Biden signed an executive order creating the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment to “promote my Administration’s policy of support for worker power, worker organizing, and collective bargaining.” Led by Vice President Kamala Harris, the task force has charged more than 20 agency heads and Cabinet leaders with reviewing existing policies and recommending new actions that should be taken under existing authority to support workers’ right to come together to improve standards. The task force issued more than 70 recommendations, including to reduce barriers to organizing, protect organizing workers from illegal retaliation, and establish more resources for workers on unions and collective bargaining. In addition, the task force is ensuring that agencies live up to these commitments by publicly tracking progress toward its recommendations.
6. Increasing funds to uphold workers’ rights
Last winter, President Biden signed into law an omnibus spending bill that increased funding for the NLRB for the first time since 2014. American workers need a strong NLRB with sufficient staffing and funding to enforce American labor law, but over time, a hostile political environment had effectively placed a cap on agency funding and significantly reduced agency resources. The number of staffers dropped by 30 percent between 2010 and 2021, and without budget increases, more staff would have had to be furloughed. The $25 million in additional funds helps support the enforcement actions detailed above, as well as builds agency capacity to oversee more elections as workers fight to unionize. According to the Economic Policy Institute, petitions for union elections grew by 53 percent between October 2021 and September 2022. Moreover, the rate at which workers win unions in NLRB elections climbed steadily during the first two years of the Biden administration, exceeding any level achieved under the previous administration.
7. Giving fast-food and other workers a voice on the job
President Biden’s NLRB appointees adopted “joint employer” rules to help hold corporations accountable when they violate the right of workers to come together in unions or speak up against unfair working conditions. Previously, former President Trump’s NLRB appointees adopted rules that made it easier for large corporations to escape liability for labor violations and avoid bargaining obligations by relying on smaller companies—such as franchisees, temporary staffing agencies, and labor contractors—to supply their labor force. While many corporations do not outsource workers with the aim of violating workplace laws, some corporations may try to relinquish the official title of employer but not the power to control their labor suppliers’ business decisions or workplace conditions. The new joint employer rules help prevent large corporations from using outsourcing to undercut workers’ rights.
Strong joint employer standards are particularly important in working-class jobs that are at risk of outsourcing, such as restaurant and hotel workers, janitorial positions and security officers, home care workers, farm laborers, coal miners, and construction and warehouse workers. Unfortunately, some members of Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have introduced legislation to overturn the new joint employer standards.
8. Rebuilding federal employee unions
On his third day in office, President Biden signed an executive order empowering federal workers to come together in unions and rebuild civil service protections after years of Trump administration actions that undermined federal workers’ and government’s ability to provide high-quality services. The order repealed Trump-era actions that weakened public sector unions’ ability to connect with workers and represent them in employment disputes and undermined protections against politically motivated firings and retaliation in civil service jobs. In addition, the Biden administration reduced barriers to unionization among public employees by expanding efforts to ensure that federal employees know their rights and providing agency guidance on union participation in new hire orientations, as well as guidance on efficient dues deduction processes and neutrality requirements during union organizing campaigns. Finally, it has proposed new rules to protect 2.2 million federal civil service workers from being stripped of employment protections without their consent in the future. In March 2023, the Biden administration announced that the number of federal employees in unions has grown by 20 percent since the start of this administration’s efforts.
American workers want to unionize, and President Biden is the most pro-union president in history. Despite congressional Republicans advancing measures to undermine workers’ essential right to come together in strong unions, the Biden administration is on workers’ side and is using its regulatory, administrative, and legislative authorities to support workers as they advocate for their rights.