Joe Biden's political persona is pure blue-collar. He is always talking up his supposedly hardscrabble roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and boasting about his record of supporting labor rights. When he ran for president in 2007, he claimed he had the best pro-union record of any candidate in the Democratic field (in fact, he had the worst), and promised in December that he would be "the most pro-union president you've ever seen."
And Biden has taken some reasonably encouraging pro-labor steps since becoming president. Almost immediately, he fired the entire board of Trump appointees on the Federal Service Impasses Panel, which oversees unions of federal workers. He later fired the top two members of the National Labor Relations Board, and has nominated a union attorney to become the agency's general counsel. Both moves were cheered by unions.
But now, when it comes to one of the most high-stakes union drives in years, the ongoing union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, Biden has said nothing in support. Here we have the prospect of organizing one of the most brutally anti-worker firms in the country — and possibly beginning to reverse the long decline in private-sector unionization, as Biden claims to want — and the president is AWOL. It's a maddening decision.
A simple statement of support would be enormously helpful to the Amazon organizers. It would signal that the vast power of the federal government stands behind them — simultaneously giving them confidence and demoralizing the bosses. When Franklin Roosevelt was president, union organizers knew that the state would force bosses to obey labor laws and collective bargaining agreements, even if it required literally sending in the troops. As a result, there were a lot more unions. Conversely, when Ronald Reagan destroyed the air traffic controllers' union in 1981, private bosses around the country took this as permission to launch aggressive union-busting efforts, figuring correctly that Reagan would let them push the legal envelope.
It's not hard to imagine why Biden isn't doing this. The most obvious reason is corruption. Amazon is one of the richest and most powerful companies in the world, and therefore a juicy prospect for post-office jobs and bribes for Biden and his staffers — witness former Obama administration press secretary Jay Carney, who is now a senior vice president at Amazon. As Vice reported, last year he and other Amazon brass personally coordinated a smear campaign against warehouse worker Christian Smalls, who had tried to organize workers to get better protections from the pandemic.
The reason a company like Amazon hires former Democratic Party elites is connections. Sure enough, Carney was Biden's communications director early in the Obama years, and diligently courted Biden's presidential campaign in 2020 with huge donations and outreach. No doubt Amazon executives hope that massive salary he's been collecting is going to pay off in spades now.
But there is also a cultural-ideological factor at work. The neoliberal faction that has ruled the Democratic Party from the late 1970s through 2016 (at least) viewed big corporations with credulous amiability — especially high-tech ones. Google was practically its own branch of government during the Obama years. That's related to corruption, too, but it's also tied up with the fading embers of 1990s tech utopianism, when people thought computers and the internet would usher in a new age of global peace and understanding.
Given that the opposite happened — Big Tech barons proved to be just as monstrous as their oligarch forebears from the first Gilded Age, if not worse — that attitude is fading fast. But it can still be seen here and there, as in Biden's apparent wish to get Amazon involved in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout for some reason.
Still, however unsurprising Biden's silence might be given his record, letting the Amazon organizers go it alone is political malpractice. It is breaking a campaign promise, and ignoring a winning issue. Nearly two-thirds of Americans approve of labor unions — up 17 points in the last decade. Donald Trump and other right-wing pseudo-populists like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have gotten a lot of mileage out of pretending to support workers, while doing almost nothing to help them in concrete terms and continuing to rake in huge donations from the oligarch class. That is one reason why Trump did so well among union workers (though culture war red meat played a part as well).
Biden coming out hard for an Amazon union would pin those Republicans between their donors and a substantial portion of their base. And should the union vote succeed, Democrats would have a concrete example of why the working class should vote for them. Back when New Dealers were passing tons of labor legislation and supporting strikes against corporate bosses, the fraction of private-sector workers in a union was roughly five times as large as it is today — and most of them voted for Democrats.
One doesn't even have to take a bitterly anti-Amazon line to believe the company's workers ought to get decent labor conditions and a share of the company's gigantic profits. If Jeff Bezos is worth $186 billion, then surely a warehouse worker can get bathroom and rest breaks, guaranteed shifts, and $15 an hour?
At any rate, this won't be the last time labor rights come up in the Biden administration. The PRO Act, a sweeping bill that would be the biggest reform of labor law since 1935, has passed the House already, and Biden says he supports it. Whether he pushes his moderate Democratic colleagues in the Senate to reform the filibuster and pass the law will be the real test for his labor legacy. So far the prospects are not promising.