The Biden administration has cautiously waded into a pair of high-profile strikes in recent days, with cabinet members visiting workers on picket lines during a month dubbed #Striketober.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh joined striking Kellogg’s employees in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday afternoon as they fight for a new five-year agreement with the cereal maker. Roughly 1,400 workers represented by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM) started a work stoppage more than three weeks ago.
“The holidays are coming. Let’s get these workers a fair contract,” Walsh said while surrounded by union supporters and news crews.
Walsh’s visit came a week after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack traveled to Iowa, where he previously served as governor, to join striking John Deere workers on their picket line outside the manufacturer’s Ankeny plant. More than 10,000 Deere employees are now on strike after rejecting a tentative deal between the company and their union, the United Auto Workers (UAW).
“You don’t forget the folks who got you where you are,” Vilsack said, offering to meet with John Deere’s CEO to discuss the dispute.
“Actively joining a picket line is a big deal.”
Many union supporters have hoped to see Joe Biden himself speak up in defense of striking workers, but so far the administration has kept the president out of the fray. Asked directly about the John Deere dispute when UAW members authorized a strike last month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that “as a policy, and for legal reasons, we don’t weigh in on individual labor disputes.”
She added, speaking generally, that “the president is deeply concerned when he sees companies making record profits, padding the pockets of CEOs, and expressing concern about paying a little bit more so that we can invest in our workforce.”
Of course, Walsh and Vilsack don’t carry the same weight or name recognition of their boss. But they are high-profile representatives of the Biden administration, and their visits with striking workers are highly unusual and perhaps unprecedented.
Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University, said he could think of no other instances in which a sitting secretary joined workers on a picket line.
“Past cabinet members have had experience on strikes before joining the cabinet, or have expressed sympathy with strikes,” McCartin, the author of “Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America,” told HuffPost. “But actively joining a picket line is a big deal.”
A Labor Department spokesperson said that Walsh, a former labor leader in the Massachusetts building trades, decided to visit Kellogg’s workers after getting an invitation from BCTGM President Anthony Shelton to “assess the situation on the ground.” The White House was looped in on Walsh’s trip.
“As a former labor leader, Secretary Walsh understands that importance of collaboration between unions and management to create better conditions in the workplace,” the spokesperson said.
On the eve of last year’s presidential election, Biden vowed to be the “most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” and union supporters have been quick to remind the White House of those words since he took office.
Biden has issued union-friendly executive orders, stocked the National Labor Relations Board with strong worker advocates and pushed for passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a bill in Congress that would make it easier for workers to form unions. He’s also used the bully pulpit to advocate for collective bargaining, most notably in a February speech dealing with a high-profile union organizing campaign at an Amazon warehouse.
Although he did not explicitly name Amazon at the time, Biden chastised companies for pressuring workers not to unionize. Labor historians described the lengthy address, which followed a sustained lobbying campaign by union officials, as unparalleled for a sitting president.
But so far, Biden seems disinclined to publicly wade into any work stoppages.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian and author of “State of the Union,” said in an email that presidents typically work through diplomatic channels to resolve labor disputes, rather than take public stands.
He noted that Theodore Roosevelt pressured railroad titans to submit to arbitration during the 1902 anthracite coal strike, and that Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the seizure of Montgomery Ward’s assets when the company ignored a labor agreement under the National War Labor Board. FDR also delegated his labor secretary, Frances Perkins, to lean on General Motors CEO Alfred Sloan during the 1936-1937 sit-down strike by the UAW.
But Lichtenstein could think of no “clear cut” examples of presidents overtly siding with workers on strike, as some clearly hope Biden will do.
“Usually, presidents work behind the scenes to get intransigent employers to negotiate,” Lichtenstein said.