On February 28, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representatives Bobby Scott and Brian Fitzpatrick reintroduced the Richard L. Trumka Protecting the Right to Organize Act. In response, SMART issued the following statement:
“Today, we at SMART join Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Reps. Bobby Scott (Va.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) in their call to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.
“It’s no secret that workers in unions have higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions. But due to outdated labor laws, too many workers across this country face employer interference in their efforts to organize, unionize and collectively bargain. Those bad faith employers break the law and rake in record profits, while many working people can barely support their families.
“The PRO Act would fully restore the right of workers to form a union and bargain collectively and ensure dignity and fair treatment for all. It’s time for us to hold corporations accountable for union-busting and for the law to work for working people.”
“Strong unions built the great American middle class. Everything that defines what it means to live a good life and know you can take care of your family — the 40-hour workweek, paid leave, health care protections, a voice in your workplace — is because of workers who organized unions and fought for worker protections.”
The words above could have been written or spoken by any of thousands of union organizers or leaders across the United States in recent decades. They could be part of the narration to a union video or the rousing prelude to a call-to-action at a union rally. But they aren’t. Instead, they come from the Biden-Harris 2020 campaign website, which is peppered with promises to stand with regular working Americans, support the creation of good union jobs and strengthen collective bargaining and worker organizing. We know campaign promises are one thing… and post-election actions and reality are another. So, what has the Biden-Harris Administration done for workers thus far? Are they walking their pro-worker talk? Below is a summary of actions to help working Americans under the first 100 days of the Biden-Harris Administration:
President Biden Fired Aggressively Anti-Union NLRB General Counsel
Just hours after his inauguration, President Biden took the unprecedented step of firing the sitting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, Peter Robb, who had been blasted as an anti-union zealot. During Robb’s tenure at the NLRB, the board significantly expanded employers’ powers, allowing them to search workers’ cars and personal items, eject union organizers from public spaces, withdraw union recognition more easily, discriminate against union members in the workplace, thwart protests, and disregard the rights of workers at subcontractors and franchises, among other harm done to workers’ rights. His assistant, who took over in his place and shares the same views, was next in line to replace him. Biden terminated her immediately thereafter. One of Robb’s priorities had been to try and limit the legality of Project Labor Agreements. Two suits filed by Robb aimed to create new case law on PLAs, which would have had disastrous impacts on work hours for all construction union members. They were rescinded by Robb’s Biden-appointed replacement.
Biden-Harris Administration Issued Emergency Safety Protection Order
On Day 2, President Biden underscored that worker safety will be a top priority under his administration, signing an executive order directing OSHA to produce “clear guidance for employers to help keep workers safe from COVID-19 exposure.” This action aimed to save lives and protect workers who regularly face dangerous conditions while serving their communities during the pandemic. Strong enforceable standards built into the order require employers to develop workplace safety plans, implement science-based protection measures, train workers and report workplace COVID outbreaks.
Biden Appoints Amit Bose to Replace Former Rail CEO Ron Batory Atop FRA
On Jan. 21, President Biden appointed Amit Bose, who had served as deputy administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) during the Obama administration, to the same position for his administration. Bose later was elevated to the position of FRA acting administrator and is in line to become the permanent FRA administrator. “We’re excited to be working with Amit Bose,” said SMART Transportation Division National Legislative Director Gregory Hynes. “We’ve had several conversations and he understands and supports our issues. It’s a welcome new day for rail labor.
New Administration Set $15 Minimum Wage for Federal Contractors
President Biden signed an executive order that ordered the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to establish a $15 minimum wage for all federal contractors.
President Biden Selected Union Steelworker to Lead OSHA
President Biden selected former United Steelworkers’ safety official James Frederick to lead the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), signaling a commitment to tougher federal enforcement of workplace safety standards as the nation continues to battle a COVID-19 pandemic that has killed over 500,000 Americans. Frederick worked for 25 years in the Steelworkers’ health, safety, and environment department.
President Picked Building Trades Official to Lead Wage and Hour Division
Jessica Looman was the executive director of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council before she was selected to head the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. She previously worked as general counsel for the Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota. In between, she served as the deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. Her appointment is of particular importance and offers a very stark contrast with the previous administration, which issued an eleventh hour change to prevailing wage laws. If kept in place, the change would have had a disastrous impact on prevailing wages, pricing out high-road signatory contractors from projects. The change also would have given employers on public projects the leeway to pay someone performing commercial work the residential wage instead, which typically would be significantly lower.
President Selected Union Attorney to Lead FLRA
President Biden promoted union attorney Ernest Dubster to be the chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority (FLRA). This agency oversees disputes between the federal government and federal unions. Dubster previously worked as legislative counsel for the AFL-CIO and as a law professor teaching collective bargaining and arbitration.
President Fired Entire Anti-Union Federal Labor Board
President Biden’s work to rid the government of Trump’s anti-union appointees continued with his decision to oust the 10 members of the Federal Service Impasses Panel (FSIP). This panel decides contract disputes between federal unions and the government. It was stacked with anti-union picks that included leaders from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which crafts “right-to-work” (for less) legislation for state elected officials, as well as bills aimed at eliminating prevailing wages (including the infamous Act 10 bill in Wisconsin). The board also included appointees from the Heritage Foundation, and another individual from a top union-busting law firm. President Biden offered the 10 appointees the chance to resign, which eight did. The other two were fired. When those appointees were on the board, the government won 90% of the cases that came before the FSIP — meaning federal employee unions won only 10%.
President Biden Issued Buy American Executive Order That Closed Previous Loopholes
While the Trump administration used the right-sounding “Buy American” words and rhetoric, it never put into place policies to effect meaningful change regarding the purchase of American-made goods and services. Five days into office, President Biden signed an executive order that directed the federal government to strengthen its Buy American standards. This required more of the product to be made in the United States, cut red tape for buying these items, and made it easier for small and medium sized manufacturers to get federal contracts. The government spends about $600 billion a year on American-made products and is expected to add another $400 billion as part of Biden’s Build Back Better program.
President Named Far More Labor-Friendly NLRB General Counsel
The week after firing Peter Robb as NLRB general counsel, President Biden named Peter Sung Ohr as the NRLB’s acting general counsel. A career NLRB attorney, Ohr had been the board’s regional director of Region 13 in Chicago. Now as the NLRB’s top attorney, he gets to choose many of the cases the board hears and write directives that tell regional offices how the NLRB should enforce the law. In his first week on the job, Ohr repealed a dozen Trump-era anti-worker directives that had targeted unions. He also threw out a case that would have prevented unions from negotiating commonsense neutrality agreements with employers.
President Issued Order to End Federal Private Prisons
Near the end of his first week in office, President Biden issued an executive order directing the federal government to stop contracting with private prisons. Private prisons are for-profit ventures that reduce prison employee wages and take jobs from union corrections officers. Training and security standards are often much lower at private prisons. According to a 2012 study by The Sentencing Project, private prison employees earn an average of over $5,000 less than government employee prison staff and receive 58 fewer hours of training, leading to higher employee turnover and decreased prison security. In addition, a 2016 Justice Department report found that private prisons had a 28 percent higher rate of inmate-on-inmate assaults and more than twice as many inmate-on-staff assaults. According to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents employees with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, federal prisons staffed by union employees are “more cost-effective, more efficient and much safer than their for-profit counterparts.”
Biden Signed Executive Order Calling for Union Labor to Build New Climate Infrastructure
Realizing that the shift to clean energy is a tremendous opportunity to create jobs, President Biden signed an executive order directing the federal government to lead the way by focusing public dollars on American-made products, including renewable energy goods and clean vehicles, and that high labor standards be attached to every federal incentive for clean energy. The president also explicitly called for investments communities that produce coal and other fossil-fuels to create good jobs in new industries and by cleaning up abandoned mines and wells.
President Biden Signed Order Mandating Masks on Interstate Travel
President Biden underscored his commitment to the safety of air, rail and transit employees and passengers with a mask mandate that covers anyone who flies, takes a passenger train like Amtrak, or travels on busses such as Greyhound or Peter Pan that cross state lines. This order was followed up on January 29 by the Centers for Disease Control, as directed by the president, and imposes a mask requirement on all public transportation systems including rail, vans, bus and motorcoach services.
In an announcement of the order sent to Federal Railroad Administration stakeholders and partners on January 31, an FRA representative wrote the following: “Science-based measures are critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19. Mask-wearing is one of several proven life-saving measures, including physical distancing, appropriate ventilation and timely testing that can reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Requiring masks will protect America’s transportation workers and passengers, help control the transmission of COVID-19, and aid in re-opening America’s economy.”
Per Biden’s Order, OSHA Released New COVID-19 Safety Guidance
OSHA issued enhanced COVID-19 safety guidance to help employers and their employees implement a COVID-19 prevention program and better identify risks that could lead to exposure and infection.
Employee Advocate Appointed Senior Advisor on Unemployment Insurance
The Biden-Harris administration selected Michele Evermore for the newly created role of senior advisor on unemployment insurance within the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration. Evermore previously worked as a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a non-profit that supports low-wage and unemployed workers. Evermore has been a prominent pro-worker voice throughout the pandemic, both as an expert in explaining the federal assistance available to workers, and as a vigorous advocate who addresses the inequities of unemployment assistance.
U.S. House Passed National Apprenticeship Act
With this new bill, union-sponsored registered apprenticeships will not only continue strengthening economic opportunities in every community, both large and small, they will also open pathways for more industries to recruit, train and expand productive and highly-skilled workforces.
President Biden Nominated Labor Attorney to Serve as NLRB General Counsel
President Biden appointed Jennifer Abbruzo, special counsel for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and highly respected within the labor movement, to serve as the NLRB’s new general counsel. During her labor career, she provided legal counsel on numerous initiatives that advanced worker power. She previously served as deputy general counsel and acting general counsel at the NLRB. In her nearly 23 years with the agency, she helped to protect workers’ rights from numerous corporate attacks. Once confirmed, she will replace acting General Counsel Peter Sung Ohr.
Biden-Harris Moved to Eliminate IRAPs
In mid-February, the Biden-Harris Administration restricted funding for Industry Recognized Apprenticeships (IRAPs), an important step in rolling them back entirely. IRAPS are a dangerous initiative inspired by anti-union contractors aimed at undermining high-quality union apprenticeship programs and replacing them with a watered-down system of certifications. The IRAP program was the most serious political attack on building trades unions in over a generation. Cutting off IRAP funding is an important step in the fight to roll them back. Through his actions, President Biden took important steps to eliminate this existential threat to union apprenticeships. The Biden-Harris administration also brought back the Department of Labor’s Advisory Committee on Apprenticeship, which provides much-needed industry-based input on policy, quality assurance standards and equitable enforcement.
FRA Closed Comment Period on Proposed Rail Worker Fatigue Regulations
On Feb. 22, comments closed for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for which the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) sought input on how to address the problem of rail worker fatigue. The regulations would require certain railroads to develop and implement a “fatigue risk management program” as one component of their larger safety programs. The notice and closing of the comment period shows movement by the Biden-Harris administration on a long-delayed component of the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA), which requires railroads to create safety risk reduction programs to address the hazards that railroad workers face on a regular basis. SMART-TD filed its comments in conjunction with another union representing rail operating personnel ahead of the comment deadline.
Biden Signed Order Allowing Unions at DOD
The Defense Department employs about 700,000 civilian workers, about half of which are unionized. An executive order from the previous administration allowed the Secretary of Defense to eliminate collective bargaining rights for those employees at the DOD secretary’s discretion. An executive order by President Biden reversed this anti-union directive.
Biden Order Allowed DOL to Extend Unemployment Benefits to Those Who Refuse Work Due to COVID Concerns
Under the Biden-Harris administration, the Department of Labor released guidance extending unemployment benefits to workers who refuse to return to a job that is unsafe. The benefits eligibility now applies in circumstances where a worker refuses to return to work or accept an offer of work at a worksite that, in either instance, “is not in compliance with local, state, or national health and safety standards directly related to COVID-19.” These health and safety standards include those related to the wearing of face coverings, physical distancing, and the provision of personal protective equipment consistent with public health guidelines. This extended eligibility is specific to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a type of benefit created and federally funded by the 2020 CARES Act. PUA covers self-employed individuals, independent contractors, and other workers who are not covered by traditional unemployment insurance programs.
Major Court Victory for Freight Rail Labor Blocked Trump FRA Policy
In a legal victory that underscored the importance of electing presidents who will pick judges who understand worker issues, soon after President Biden was inaugurated, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit put common sense and safety ahead of profits and political favoritism. By vacating action by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) under the Trump administration to preempt all state laws and regulations concerning freight train crew size, the court ruling overturned one of the most blatant attacks on workers from the previous administration. While the decision was not a direct result of actions by the Biden Administration — the 3–0 ruling was made by judges nominated by Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — the actions of President Biden and his appointees point toward a far more receptive audience in the nation’s capitol in the fight to maintain two-person crews.
Biden Announced Support for Amazon Organizing Drive
By announcing his support for Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama seeking to form a union, President Biden became the first president in over 70 years to come out strongly in support of a major union organizing drive. The last president who articulated this type of support was Franklin D Roosevelt. While the Alabama warehouse workers lost their election in April, the campaign — and the president’s public support — inspired them and other Amazon workers across the country.
House Passed Right-to-Organize Bill with White House Support
On March 9, the U.S. House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which is the most significant worker empowerment legislation since the Great Depression. Among other improvements and reforms to outdated U.S. labor laws, it will:
Help ensure workers who win union recognition can reach a first contract quickly.
End employers’ ability to hire permanent replacements to punish striking workers.
Enhance the NLRB’s power to fine companies that violate labor law, up to $50,000 per violation.
Weaken so-called “right-to-work” laws in the 27 states that allow employees who benefit from union contracts to choose not to join or pay union dues.
In early March, President Biden encouraged Congress to pass the PRO Act and the House swiftly passed it. The president had articulated his support for labor law reforms during his campaign, but with the PRO Act now introduced in Congress, his support is a powerful tool in helping ensure that all Democratic Senators support the bill. As of press time, the bill was the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The American Rescue Plan
On March 11, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The act is a $1.9 trillion relief plan that will jumpstart the American economy. It puts real money behind the president’s commitment to defeat the COVID-19 virus and to build back the U.S. economy back better than it was before the pandemic. This critical relief package has already delivered desperately needed federal support for hard-working Americans and will help rebuild our shattered economy with provisions that directly benefit SMART members. The plan includes resources for COVID testing, logistics, vaccine production and distribution to save lives and reopen America. It secures health care coverage, extends unemployment benefits and provides direct cash support for tens of millions of American families. It also delivers badly needed state and local aid to safely reopen schools and keep our bus and transit systems safe. In addition, the legislation allocates $170 billion to education, with much of that funding targeted to updating ventilation systems — putting sheet metal members to work as we monitor air quality and retrofit those same buildings to rebuild America’s aging HVAC systems. For SMART brothers and sisters on Amtrak who were idled due to no fault of their own, $2 billion is provided to re-open routes and get them back to work.
Multiemployer Pension Relief
Included in the American Rescue Plan signed by President Biden is a provision allocating $86 billion for multiemployer pension plans facing financial uncertainty. Under the legislation, eligible plans will receive funding in an amount sufficient to ensure that full benefits are paid for the next 30 years, without any benefit reductions or any repayment obligations. Hundreds of multiemployer plans that cover millions of union members and retirees stand to benefit (SMART’s pension plans are currently financially healthy). “Reckless Wall Street behavior, industry deregulation and employer abuse of corporate bankruptcy have threatened the financial security of millions who’ve worked hard, only to have that promise stolen from them,” said SMART General President Joseph Sellers in his March 2021 video message to members. “We now have a president who supports workers, retirees and their union. This administration put that commitment of ‘guarantee’ back into the ‘Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation’ ” — without cuts to accrued benefits or taxation.”
Former Union Leader Confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Labor
On March 22, the U.S. Senate confirmed Marty Walsh as the U.S. Secretary of Labor. Known primarily for his work as the mayor of Boston, Mass. Walsh was previously a rank and file member of LIUNA who worked his way up in the trade. His appointment by the Biden-Harris Administration puts a union member in charge of the Labor Department for the first time in decades.
Biden Nominated Nation’s First Made in America Director
On April 28, President Biden named Celeste Drake as the nation’s first Made in America Director. The new position will shape and implement federal procurement and financial management policy to help carry out the president’s vision of future manufacturing focused on ensuring goods are made in America by American workers. Drake joins the administration from the Directors Guild of America, where she served as the executive in charge of government affairs. Prior to joining the DGA, she served as the trade and globalization policy specialist for the AFL-CIO, where she led efforts to reform the labor rules found in NAFTA and the USMCA and to reform the process by which Congress oversees and approves trade agreements to protect American jobs.
Back in January, we met with Steve Dodd and Greg Hynes to talk about the 2020 election and what to expect from the Biden-Harris administration. We have brought them back for this Talking SMART episode to talk about the first 100 days of the administration and, more specifically, its impact on SMART members.
Brother Dodd is SMART’s Director of Governmental Affairs. He spoke with us about the many actions the Biden administration has already taken to support working families, including positive impacts of the passage of the American Rescue Plan on COBRA, unemployment benefits, multiemployer pensions, and funding for school HVAC retrofits. He also discussed the PRO Act and what it means for SMART members to have so many labor friendly people now appointed to top positions in the Biden administration.
Brother Hynes is a fifth-generation railroader and SMART TD’s National Legislative Director. He discussed how the Biden Administration, in contrast to the previous administration, now very much has an open door for labor and actively seeks input from unions on issues of concern to working families. Greg also touched on how the American Rescue Plan included funding to rehire furloughed Amtrak workers, the significance of new leadership at the Federal Rail Administration which is now re-prioritizing rail safety over corporate profits, and what it really means when politicians or rail carriers say we need to just “cut back on regulations.” In addition, listen for the open mic segment with SMART General President Joseph Sellers at the end of this episode. He responds to multiple questions that have come in from SMART members asking about what steps the Biden-Harris administration has taken to address the multiemployer pension crisis. Talking SMART is a member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network — working people’s voices, broadcasting worldwide 24 hours a day.