With states certifying their final votes from the November 3 election, what, if anything, was achieved for workers in this country? Was the needle moved in our favor, or was the status quo just kept in place?
The House Democratic majority got a little smaller, and the Senate Republican majority got a little smaller – and could get smaller still with the results of two runoff elections that will happen in Georgia in early January. The biggest change, of course, is with President Elect Joe Biden. The question then remains; just what, if anything, can or will change?
The truth of the situation is that a lot will be able to change starting with day one. A President has a lot of control over how policy is implemented through rules and executive orders. The majority of the attacks on workers, citizens, the environment, and education we have had to endure under Trump has come from these avenues.
We lamented for four years as Trump relegated worker rights to the control of big business through rule making at the Department of Labor and the Labor Relations Board.
Under President-Elect Joe Biden there is the possibility that we will have a card-carrying union member nominated to head the Department of Labor. While the three names currently being discussed would be fine pro-worker leaders for the department, one them, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, is a first-generation American who worked his way through college as a LIUNA (Laborers’ International Union of North America) member. He served in leadership roles in Laborers Local 223, Boston Metropolitan District Building Trades Council, and the Boston Building Trades, before becoming Mayor in 2013.
President Elect Biden will also make full appointments to the Labor Relations Board. This has traditionally been a bipartisan entity that, when created in 1935, was to protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy.
Under President Trump, the Labor Relations Board has been little more than a partisan, anti-worker and anti-collective bargaining entity. For most of Trump’s term, the board was only served by Republicans in three of the five seats, while the other two seats sat empty. This partisanship allowed for a culture of pro-business reforms and rulings unlike anything since the Reagan years.
Some of the most belligerent attacks on workers affirmed by the board were to allow employers to undermine the bargaining process by unilaterally imposing discretionary discipline without bargaining with the union (allowing employers to keep their investigations confidential and gag employees from talking with each other about pending employer investigations), and to curtail the use and compensation of overtime.
Biden staffing picks can help workers immediately in many ways. For example, this administration can rule in favor of workers’ rights to organize and address what has been done (or not done) regarding the COVID response for workers. And, they can rule on how companies have and have not treated their workers during this time.
Three of the executive orders impacting federal government employees represented by unions could be rescinded immediately:
Executive Order #13836: Re-open collective bargaining agreements and then rush negotiations – Directs agencies to renegotiate collective bargaining agreements as soon as possible; the order sets arbitrary timelines for the negotiation process which, when exceeded, will result in the unilateral imposition of terms by the agencies; it established a new bureaucracy called “The Labor Relations Group” that dictated “one-size-fits all” proposals to agencies engaged in bargaining; and encouraged agencies to engage in “take-it-or-leave-it” bargaining tactics inconsistent with agencies’ good-faith bargaining obligations.
Executive Order #13837: Hamstring unions’ ability to represent workers – Attempted to prevent union stewards from using official time to aid employees in preparing or pursuing grievances; directs agencies to drastically reduce official time authorizations to one hour per bargaining unit employee per year, an attack designed to make it harder for your union to help you; and cuts off access to agency office space for union officials carrying out their representational duties, making it harder to help workers.
Executive Order #13839: Fire first, ask questions never – encourages agencies to abandon fairness concepts such as progressive discipline process; attempts to undermine the public interest by interfering with union representation; encourages agencies to tailor different penalties for the same or similar offenses, ignoring established law; directs the Office of Personnel Management to give performance appraisal more weight than seniority when an agency faces a reduction in force, creating great potential for unfairness; and instructs agencies to take away our ability to grieve unfair removals from service or to challenge performance appraisals or awards at all.
In 2019, the Federal Government employed almost 3.8 million people. Of that sum, 1.15 million were represented by unions. These Trump executive orders have been focused directly at them.
“This isn’t just about employees,” Tony Reardon, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union told Market Watch. “Ultimately, this is good for American taxpayers to have federal employees and agency leaders communicating and taking action together to solve problems before there’s a grievance of a lawsuit.”
The fact of the matter is that President-Elect Biden has already pledged to undo many of the policies put into place by Trump. He has vowed to increase enforcement of tax policies already on the books to which Trump has turned a blind eye, and also to quickly bolster workers’ unionization rights.
On his transition website, the President Elect has this to say about workers:
“This starts with passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, providing public service and federal government workers with bargaining rights, and taking other steps to make it easier for workers to organize unions and collectively bargain. Biden will also address discrimination and harassment in the workplace, and pass the Paycheck Fairness Act as the next step in efforts to ensure women are paid equally for equal work. He will pass universal paid sick days and 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave. And he has a plan to ensure that every American has access to quality, affordable health care, by providing a public option and lowering costs for care and for prescription drugs.”
It appears that workers are at least at the forefront of the administration that will be leading the country for the next four years. But with a U.S. Senate currently appearing to be controlled by the Senate Republicans, it will be hard to pass important laws like the PRO ACT, which has passed the U.S. House and is geared to protect the rights of workers to collectively bargain.
We must wait to see what negotiations will need to happen to finally get a second COVID relief bill passed. Businesses and workers are hurting more now than they were at the beginning of the pandemic. Employees and small business owners are feeling it the most, while the super wealthy have actually seen their wealth increase exponentially during the pandemic. “The Small Business Administration made $349 billion available to small businesses with the Paycheck Protection Program,” according to Business Insider. “But like in 2008, $243 million of that was snapped up by large, publicly traded corporations, some of which were valued at over $100 million. Even hedge funds submitted claims to try to tap into what they saw as free money.”
There were bright spots in the 2020 election for workers beyond just winning the White House. In Illinois, Congresswoman Cheri Bustos was again re-elected in a large union district. Kai Kahele, member of the Airline Pilots Association, won the Hawaiian 2nd congressional district. Workers also saw union members re-elected to state legislatures in Utah, Wisconsin, Illinois and Maine, as well as New York, Georgia and Connecticut.
Workers re-elected one justice and added another to the Michigan Supreme Court, giving workers a 4-3 majority. The State of Florida voted to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour, and Colorado voters approved required paid family and Medical leave by 2024 with 57% of the voters supporting.
Workers are mobilizing to make their voices heard, but changes will not happen overnight, and they do not all happen with one election. We must continue to fight to not only get back the things that were taken from us under Trump, but to engage with our fellow workers and friends and neighbors so that we can continue to build on the rights of workers in this country.