Joseph R. Biden Jr. vowed to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” And for the last two years, labor leaders have often lauded him for delivering on that promise.
They cite appointees who are sympathetic to unions and a variety of pro-labor measures, like a pandemic relief bill that included tens of billions to shore up union pension funds.
But in recent weeks, after Mr. Biden helped impose a contract on railroad workers that four unions had rejected, partly over its lack of paid sick days, many labor activists and scholars have begun to ask: How supportive is the president, really?
To those reassessing Mr. Biden, the concern is that the president, by asking Congress to intervene and avert a strike, missed a rare opportunity to improve workers’ bargaining power in ways that could extend beyond the rail sector. They worry that the move essentially validated an employer strategy of waiting out workers in hopes that the pressure would fizzle.
“Whether this group of workers has sick days or not on some level was not the issue,” said Kim Phillips-Fein, a historian at Columbia University who studies labor. “It was: What can people ask for and expect to win through collective action?”
That Mr. Biden did not take a stronger stand, she added, “suggested a political blindness to what was really at stake.”
At heart, the railroad episode has stirred a debate over what it means to be a pro-labor president.
Defenders see Mr. Biden as unusually outspoken on behalf of workers’ rights. They cite his declaration during a unionization vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats” — an unusual if carefully worded gesture of presidential solidarity — and his dismay that Kellogg planned to permanently replace striking workers.
“He has helped create a mood in the country as it relates to unions that has helped propel the extraordinary organizing going on,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which organized the unsuccessful drive at the Alabama warehouse and is challenging the result. Mr. Appelbaum added that Mr. Biden’s announcement during the campaign was “beyond what we’d hoped for.”
The president’s backers also point to a raft of labor-friendly regulations and legislation. Mr. Biden issued an executive order requiring so-called project labor agreements on federal construction projects above $35 million — agreements with unions that set wages and work rules — and the major climate and health bill he signed created incentives for clean energy projects to pay wages similar to union rates.
Celeste Drake, a senior White House labor adviser, said in a statement that Mr. Biden had made “lasting strides for workers and unions” and that many of his achievements were “passed on a razor’s edge of tight margins in Congress, often with Republican votes, where the president’s advocacy for unions as a means to rebuilding the middle class could have jeopardized everything.” (More than 70 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, according to a recent Gallup poll.)
Liz Shuler, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., who was the labor federation’s second-ranking official during the Obama presidency, said Mr. Biden’s administration had been far more solicitous of labor than the previous Democratic president, whom labor leaders sometimes criticized for backing free trade deals and contentious changes in education policy.
“For the decisions made in the Obama administration, labor was often an afterthought,” Ms. Shuler said. “It’s the polar opposite with Biden. We’re included at the table ahead of time, before decisions are made.”
Even the railway labor situation, in which Mr. Biden urged Congress to enact a contract that included significant wage gains and improvements in health benefits, ended up more favorable to workers than it probably would have under another administration, union officials say.
The alternative view of Mr. Biden, put forth by many labor historians and activists, is that while the president has in fact been more obliging to unions and maintained better relationships with union leaders than his recent Democratic predecessors, the difference is one of degree rather than kind.
They say that like his predecessors, Mr. Biden effectively seeks to manage the long-term decline of labor in a relatively humane way — by making favorable appointments and enacting measures that help at the margins — but has yet to take the sorts of risks that would restore power to workers.
Mr. Biden has “gestured in interesting ways in certain moments,” said Gabriel Winant, a labor historian at the University of Chicago. “But it doesn’t seem like he has the stomach to see the gestures through.”
For those who subscribe to this view, the rail labor dispute was a telling encapsulation of Mr. Biden’s approach: an instance in which the administration worked closely with many leaders of the dozen unions representing rail workers but angered portions of the rank and file. Members of four unions voted down the deal that the administration had helped broker but were not allowed to strike for a better one.
Administration officials say that while Mr. Biden strongly supports the right to strike, the potential costs to the economy, which the industry said could be more than $2 billion per day, were simply too high to allow rail workers to walk off the job. They point out that a strike could have also posed health and safety risks — for example, by halting shipments of chemicals that ensure clean drinking water.
But to critics, these risks were in some sense the point: They provided workers with a rare moment of leverage. They say Mr. Biden could have simply refused to sign any legislation that didn’t include paid sick days, then made clear that rail carriers were to blame for any disruption if they refused.
“Biden in this case revealed that I’m your friend, but I won’t risk anything for you,” said Joseph A. McCartin, a historian at Georgetown University who has written extensively about transportation labor disputes.
And if taking a more forceful stand on behalf of rail workers was high risk, Mr. McCartin said, it was also high reward: Because transportation infrastructure touches almost every part of the country, labor relations in that sector tend to reverberate widely.
“Everybody sees it, everybody watches, everybody’s affected,” he said. An open letter to Mr. Biden last month, signed by Mr. McCartin and more than 400 other scholars, said federal interventions in transportation labor disputes “can set the tone for entire eras.”
The letter cited the government’s move to grant rail workers an eight-hour workday to avoid a strike during World War I, which paved the way for similar gains by other workers in the 1930s. By contrast, the letter said, President Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers in the early 1980s helped undermine the leverage of workers across the economy for decades.
The contention among critics is that by effectively depriving rail workers of the right to strike, Mr. Biden has made it more difficult for other workers to use that tool — and, ultimately, to reverse the movement’s long-term decline.
Strikes with strong backing from union membership “are the only way to win standard-setting contracts, and winning standard-setting contracts is the only way to rebuild the labor movement,” said Jane McAlevey, a scholar and longtime organizer. Her coming book, “Rules to Win By: Power and Participation in Union Negotiations,” documents the importance of aggressive labor actions in improving pay and working conditions.
Workers and organizers at the forefront of recent union campaigns at companies like Starbucks and Amazon said they worried that Mr. Biden’s intervention in the rail labor dispute sent employers a message that the federal government would not punish them for anti-union behavior.
“Everyone understands the significance of the president getting involved,” said Christian Smalls, the president of the Amazon Labor Union, which won an election to represent workers at a Staten Island warehouse in April. “To claim you’re the most pro-union president in history and do something like this contradicts everything.” (Amazon has challenged the union’s victory.)
In some respects, it may have been unrealistic for labor activists to expect that Mr. Biden, who has carried himself as a middle-of-the-road Democrat for much of his career, would depart from the basic model of labor relations that has long prevailed in his party.
But during the presidential campaign, Mr. Biden and some of his senior advisers discussed ways in which they hoped to break with longstanding economic orthodoxy in Washington, with its emphasis on free markets and a small role for government.
Those who support more populist-minded policies say Mr. Biden has delivered in certain ways: enacting subsidies for domestic manufacturing and restrictions on trade with China and appointing regulators who have frequently gone to court to block large mergers.
“There obviously has been progress made,” said Oren Cass, a former Republican policy aide and the founder of American Compass, which seeks to make conservatism more supportive of workers.
Yet when it comes to labor, some say Mr. Biden has been less willing to rethink the reigning economic model.
“If Biden had intervened in a way that was more favorable and sympathetic to the rail workers, that would have been a sign of him really breaking with that model, and the model itself no longer seeming to fit the current moment,” said Ms. Phillips-Fein, the Columbia historian. “That it didn’t happen suggests the limits of his political imagination.”