President Joe Biden on Sunday night condemned union-busting by corporations and expressed the U.S. government’s support for collective bargaining by workers in a speech that made a nod toward an organizing effort by Amazon workers.
Although he did not mention any particular company by name, the subtext of Biden’s remarks posted on Twitter was the ongoing union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, where nearly 6,000 workers are voting on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Biden said unions “put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice ― for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment.”
Many progressives have called for Biden to emphatically declare his support for the Alabama workers in the unionization drive, something he still shied away from doing in his comments. But he walked closer to that line, noting that workers “in Alabama and all across America” are facing votes on organizing.
“This is vitally important,” Biden said. “A vitally important choice as America grapples with a deadly pandemic, the economic crisis and the reckoning on race that reveals the deep disparities that still exist in our country.”
A majority of the workers at the Amazon facility in a suburb of Birmingham are Black. If the organizing effort succeeds, it would create the first unionized workforce at an Amazon warehouse in the U.S.
Biden was careful to note that it was “not up to me whether anyone should join a union.” But he added it was “not up to an employer to decide that, either.”
Amazon has rolled out an aggressive anti-union campaign, holding meetings with workers and passing out literature urging them to vote against the union. Biden in general addressed such efforts, saying, ”There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No supervisors should confront employees about their union preferences.”
Biden also made a point of explaining a finer point of the National Labor Relations Act, the 1935 law that established the right of workers to collectively bargain. The president noted, correctly, that the act “didn’t just say that unions are allowed to exist, it said that we should encourage unions.”
The organizing campaign at Amazon has resulted in the most high-profile union election in the U.S. in several years. A victory by the union would almost certainly galvanize similar efforts inside Amazon’s logistics network. And it would likely give the labor movement a much-needed boost in the South, where right-to-work laws discourage unionization and union membership rates tend to be lower than elsewhere in the nation.
“There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.”
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, recently told HuffPost that the election gave Biden’s administration a “great opportunity” to show it values collective bargaining. He said it was “important for the administration to demonstrate during this campaign its support for unionization.”
In a statement Sunday night, Appelbaum thanked Biden for his speech. “As President Biden points out, the best way for working people to protect themselves and their families is by organizing into unions,” he said.
Labor historian Erik Loomis, in a Sunday night post on Twitter, called Biden’s remarks “arguably the most pro-union public statement by a president in support of unions in the entirety of American history.”