With labor union membership hovering near a historic low, the White House is looking at ways to increase union organizing through new federal policies that won’t require the cooperation of Congress.
A task force led by Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh sent dozens of recommendations to President Joe Biden on Monday that could “facilitate worker power through executive action.” The basic idea is to make the government a “model employer,” through federal agencies and their contractors, by encouraging workers to organize.
“Federal taxpayer dollars should be used to advance our national policy to encourage unions and collective bargaining,” the report said. “In many cases, facilitating worker organizing and collective bargaining will increase agencies’ ability to carry out their missions.”
The report said a dozen federal agencies will start attaching preferences or “otherwise encourage strong labor standards” when they dole out grants and contracts to private-sector employers. And four agencies, including the Defense Department, will take steps to make sure contractors don’t use federal money on anti-union campaigns.
The plan also includes making it easier for union organizers to access federal property to make their case to workers for unionization, and using federal agencies to make workers more aware of their rights on the job. The Labor Department, in particular, will be “providing materials on the advantages of union representation and collective bargaining.”
Unions have been pushing the administration to try to require businesses that contract with the government to stay neutral in union organizing campaigns, but the report did not explicitly recommend that. It said the White House should develop a list of “job quality metrics” that guide federal agencies on where to assign contracts and grants.
A White House official said Biden accepted the recommendations in the report. The task force will follow up with another report in six months looking at how the plan has been implemented.
Many of the ideas are inherently limited because they don’t apply to all workers – only those employed by the federal government or its contractors. But the report serves as a formal acknowledgment that the White House can do plenty on its own to promote collective bargaining without going through Congress.
Biden has endorsed a far more sweeping plan to boost unions, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which has so far failed to gain enough support in the Senate. The legislation would amount to the most significant reform to labor law in 75 years, overriding state right-to-work laws and ramping up penalties for companies that illegally bust unions, among other measures.
As a presidential candidate, Biden promised to “ensure federal dollars do not flow to employers who engage in union-busting activities, participate in wage theft, or violate labor law.” On different occasions, he has said he intends to be the most pro-union president ever.
Indeed, Biden has taken several steps to help unions, including overhauling the National Labor Relations Board and immediately firing the general counsel appointed by former President Donald Trump. He has also used the bully pulpit, including in unprecedented fashion, to encourage collective bargaining.
Union membership remains very low by historical standards. It’s estimated that roughly one in three workers belonged to unions following World War II. The number is approximately one in 10 today – and even lower in the private sector – despite the fact that the general public views unions more favorably now than in decades.
The task force attributed the drop in union density – and growing income inequality – to specific government policies shaped by Congress and the Supreme Court over the years.
“Reversing this trend is in our power,” the report states.