The price of union support for Biden – legislation to shift the balance in US industrial relations

We watched the last debate before the US presidential elections. President Donald Trump was better-behaved and the presence of mute microphones made for a more moderate evening.  But apart from a few clashes on health coverage and law and order, the debate – and most of the campaign – has been policy free.

One glaring absence (for a Point of Order team preparing to relax over Labour Weekend and commemorate Labour Day) was labour law. By and large membership of unions and compulsory bargaining has been missing from the industrial relations scene in the US in recent years.

At present 27 states have “right to work” laws where unions can organise workers but individuals can opt out if they please.

South Carolina is a good example. In 2013 Boeing selected that state to erect a factory to build 787 Dreamliners in part because of the right-to-work laws.  This month it announced all 787s would be built there, taking production away from the union-heavy Everett site.

But Democratic candidate Joe Biden has endorsed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed through the Democrat-dominated lower house back in February. This act would nullify all state right-to-work laws, which protect individuals from having to join a union or pay dues.

It expands the range of workers subject to unionism by adopting California’s so-called “ABC” test. That law narrows the definition of an “independent contractor” who is free from union attention. A nationwide ABC test would destroy the growth and flexibility of the economy, dragging everyone from tech workers to freelance reporters to Uber drivers into union membership.

The act requires employers to share their workers’ personal information (including emails and cell numbers) with union organizers, even without a worker’s consent.

Biden wants to enforce the “ambush” election rule, shortening the notice for snap union elections and giving companies little time to tell workers what they might lose when a union organises a workplace.

He would also make it easier for unions to organise subcontractors or portions of workforces, constrained by the current administration.

The act would prohibit arbitration agreements, opening corporations to labour class-action lawsuits. Companies would be forbidden from permanently replacing striking employees, and would allow secondary boycotts against neutral companies that do business with a company targeted by union strikes. And it would allow the National Labor Relations board to levy civil penalties on companies found to violate provisions.

Monopoly bargaining for state and local government workers is permitted in 30 states, making unions the exclusive representative in deciding pay, benefits and work rules. Biden would extend this to all 50 states.

The act would organise “home- and community-based” care givers.

Biden proposes to spend $US775 billion over 10 years to create these jobs. The Supreme Court in 2014 gave home workers the right to opt out of paying for union representation they don’t want, and the Trump Administration last year issued a rule barring states from “skimming” union dues from Medicaid money going to workers.

Biden would reverse all this and allow state governments to help unions organise these workers.

Under pressure from his left, Biden is expected to bail out struggling multi-employer union pensions, as well as public-union pensions hit by the coronavirus lockdowns.

Commentators believe this will unbalance labour-business relations which have been roughly balanced for 50 years. If Democrats take the Senate, and eliminate the filibuster as promised, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act is likely to pass.

The unions have heavily backed Biden with funds and political support across the states. Should he win on November 3, this would be their payback. Strangely, the Republicans and business have been largely silent on the question.

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