Is Biden Really the Most Pro-Union President?Historians in the News
tags: unions, organized labor, Joe Biden, labor history
For now, the country’s railroads will continue to run. A national strike—which would’ve started at midnight tonight and disrupted both freight and passenger rail—was averted by a tentative deal between union leaders and railroad management. That deal still needs to be ratified by the union members themselves.
President Joe Biden praised the agreement as “a big win for America.” The president “basically twisted the arm of the rail companies,” Erik Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island who specializes in U.S. labor history, told me. Biden’s rationale may have been partly political, Loomis said: A shutdown of freight deliveries could worsen inflation at a delicate moment for his approval rating. But another element of it, he said, could be linked to his Scranton identity and his upbringing in “one of these ultimate working-class industrial towns.”
Though Loomis warns that it is still early, he believes Biden might turn out to be the country’s most pro-union president. At the very least, he argues, the current president ranks well ahead of any recent Democratic president.
I caught up with Loomis by phone to discuss this morning’s news and Biden’s place in the arc of presidential labor history.
Caroline Mimbs Nyce: Is it normal for the president and the Labor secretary to play intermediary between the railroad unions and management?
Erik Loomis: Yes and no. Certainly when you’re talking about transportation strikes—and you’re talking about the kind of labor action that could really shut down a large section of the economy—then, sure, yeah.
Where President Biden differs from previous presidents—both Democratic and Republican—is that he is really determined to not use his power to hurt unions. Whereas other past presidents may have put a lot of the pressure on the union leaders, President Biden is using his power to put pressure on the companies.
Nyce: Where does Biden rank, if you’ve got a scale from “hard on unions” to “pro-union”? Where would you put him in presidential history?
Loomis: Very close to the top of being pro-union. There really are not a lot of cases in American history, even in the peak period of union power and New Deal liberalism, in which a president was so openly pro-labor. You saw this going back to President Biden’s speech before the 2021 vote at the Amazon facility in Alabama. Even though that union effort failed, Biden urges workers to vote their conscience, reminding them that they have every right to join a union if they want to.
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