More Picket Lines, More Applause Lines
This article first ran as a special Thanksgiving week combination of our regular newsletter and Hack Watch, our weekly column on media accountability. Subscribe here to get them delivered straight to your inbox every week, and check out our Hack Watch website.
The past twelve months have put on full display a newly energized, resurgent labor movement. From railroads to Hollywood and just about everywhere in between, workers have felt emboldened to strike and fight for what they need in new contracts. Even though they haven’t won anywhere near everything they wanted, this still feels like a genuine turning point after decades of decline in organized labor. Unions are now hugely popular and among the most trusted and supported institutions in the country, and they show no signs of slowing down.
President Biden has often presented himself as the pro-labor president, a sharp reversal from pretty much every post-Carter administration. And the title is definitely deserved (though it is a low bar to clear). However, there’s a lot of work left to be done to help rebuild the hollowed-out institutions that serve to build an American economy from the middle-out and bottom-up, as President Biden is fond of saying.
A year ago, railroad workers were threatening a shutdown that could have cost billions of dollars a week to try and force a better contract out of the cabal of companies that control their industry. Ultimately, Biden and Congress imposed a deal on the workers after they had refused to ratify a (lopsided) “compromise” measure that fell well short of their demands, especially around less harsh scheduling, including the ability to see a doctor and call in sick. The House passed a measure that would add seven guaranteed paid sick days to that contract, but the Senate didn’t, despite a majority of Senators voting in favor (the vote was 52-43, but to avoid a filibuster the measure needed 60 votes). In fairness, the administration has continued to call for railroads to provide better working conditions and benefits, but sidestepping the moment meant such efforts were a day late and a dollar short.
The threatened rail strike demonstrated two trends quite clearly: that the media’s attitude towards workers lagged behind the public’s, and that the White House’s attitude lagged behind the media’s. Biden (rightly) received a flood of pushback, not least from us. His failure to mount a full throated defense of frontline workers who had made huge sacrifices during the early days of the pandemic undermined his claims of being a pro-labor president. He did not threaten a veto of the imposed contract unless it came with sick days. He didn’t deploy his aides to lobby aggressively to impose workers’ preferred deal instead of the corporations’ pick. And he seemed to fear damage to the economy more than continued hardship for the people that are the economy. The administration was so out of step with the labor movement and public sentiment that Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg was grilled by mainstream media outlets about the raw deal they were forcing on railroad workers.
After that, we entered this year on a low note for organized labor. But that failure turned out to be the nadir of Biden’s support for labor. The administration has mostly supported the major strikes since then from afar. While this may seem insignificant to many, it is actually a huge deal. Staying on the sidelines means that the government does nothing to block strikes, which are unions’ single greatest tool in bargaining. If Biden got more directly involved, then Washington politics would get much more enmeshed in the dealmaking and Biden would be compelled to try and rush the process so that he can file it away as a win, rather than let workers negotiate on their own timeline, which is where most of their bargaining power comes from.
Recently, Biden became the first President to attend a UAW picket line, where he spoke of supporting the union and stood with Shawn Fain, whose negotiating team went on to win major improvements in working conditions for autoworkers, including 25 percent raises over four years and reinstated cost of living adjustments. Again, this may seem like just a symbolic gesture. But gestures matter. For decades, the presidency has undercut organized labor or, at best, been apathetic. Having the most powerful person in the world cheering you on, endorsing the person you elected to lead your union is a huge reversal.
That said, there are a couple of key places we’d like to see a bit more fight from the administration. First, more pushback to misleading media coverage. From the start of our Hack Watch newsletter, we’ve been dedicated to covering how the media beats up on workers and organized labor—hardly surprising given that most mainstream outlets are owned by the type of corporation that winds up fighting unions (e.g. NBC, ABC, etc. all lost a lot of money when their entertainment sides had to largely shut down due to the tandem writers and actors strike).
In the third issue of Hack Watch, I wrote about the rail strike. Since then, we’ve consistently pushed back on corporations leveraging mainstream news to plug their talking points. We’ve highlighted this behavior with railroads (see here and here), Hollywood studios (see here, here, here, and here), real estate firms fighting tenant organizers (here, here, here, and here), and the UAW strike (here and here). We’d love for the administration to start using their (considerably larger!) platform to fight media bias and misleading coverage on behalf of American workers; it would go a long way towards shaping the narrative in ways that benefit both worker power and voter perception of the administration.
Additionally, we’d love to see “Union Joe” actually be willing to fight corporations when they try to crush workers. There’s a lot of high profile billionaires and companies that take advantage of workers and consumers. The president should call them out. Given how much more popular the labor movement is than Biden, Trump, Congress, and nearly any other institution, associating with it can only benefit him. But while labor is more popular than other institutions, its gravitational pull to set the national narrative onto an issue or example is much less than even the reduced Bully Pulpit powers a president possesses in the 2020s.
And Biden using the bully pulpit to highlight shameful corporate misbehavior can force powerful executives into tough PR battles they can’t win. The White House has a unique ability to bring little known stories into the public zeitgeist. They should use that to share stories of workers being mistreated, consumers being ripped off, and corporations laughing all the way to the bank. They should call out the executives behind the scenes and force them into the spotlight, where their crimes can be fully investigated. For too long, the suits have been able to hide their machinations in the shadows. That’s exactly why we’ve been calling for a Corporate Crackdown.
Lastly, we desperately need Biden not to compromise with radical Republicans on government capacity. The National Labor Relations Board, the government’s arm to facilitate unionization and stifle union busting, is painfully underfunded and outgunned. Getting powerful labor lawyer Jennifer Abruzzo there as General Counsel was a big win. Getting her the firepower to truly help workers organize is the next step. And this is where the president will have to tangle with the unhinged and unruly Republican majority, and really fight to preserve the government services that help protect people against the powerful pernicious interests that have been allowed to hollow out the economy for the last decades.
This Thanksgiving, we’re thankful for all of the energy we’ve seen in the labor movement and the administration’s support of it. And we’re thankful to all of our readers who follow along with our coverage of corporate misconduct and media gaslighting. We’ll be back at it next week. There’s still a lot of work to do.
Until then, take a breath, recognize the good in the world (and the good fights worth fighting), share time with loved ones, and support unions!
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week: