President Biden signed an executive order on Monday creating a White House task force to promote labor organizing, an attempt to use the power of the federal government to reverse a decades-long decline in union membership.
The task force, to be led by Vice President Kamala Harris and populated by cabinet officials and top White House advisers, will issue recommendations on how the government can use existing authority to help workers join labor unions and bargain collectively. It will also recommend new policies aimed at achieving these goals.
The administration noted that the National Labor Relations Act, the 1935 law governing federal labor rights, explicitly sought to encourage collective bargaining, but that the law had never been fully carried out in this regard. “No previous administration has taken a comprehensive approach to determining how the executive branch can advance worker organizing and collective bargaining,” a White House statement declared.
Unions have lobbied for the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which would prohibit employers from holding mandatory anti-union meetings and impose financial penalties for violating workers’ labor rights. (Workers can currently receive only so-called make-whole remedies, like back pay.) The House passed the measure in March and Mr. Biden supports the legislation, but it faces long odds in the Senate.
The task force will focus on, among other things, helping the federal government encourage its own workers to join unions and bargain collectively, and finding ways to make it easier for workers, especially women and people of color, to organize and bargain in parts of the country and in industries that are hostile to unions.
President Donald J. Trump signed a handful of executive orders that sought to rein in union protections and bargaining rights for federal employees. The unions challenged the orders in court, and Mr. Biden revoked them shortly after taking office.
It is not entirely clear what kind of support the federal government could provide to workers seeking to organize short of changing the law, though some labor experts have argued that Mr. Biden and his appointees could use administrative action to allow workers to bargain on an industrywide basis, known as sectoral bargaining. That would make it less necessary to win union elections work site by work site, as is often the case today.
Seth Harris, a White House labor adviser, said the task force would explore the administration’s ability to increase unionization through federal procurement law, which requires the president to promote efficiency in government contracts.
“The simple fact of the matter is having a unionized work force means they are going to be paid more, they are more likely to be more productive, more likely to stay for a long time,” Mr. Harris said. “You’ll have more skilled, more experienced workers working on government procurement. You don’t have the same labor strife.”
As a general rule, the federal government probably cannot deny contracts to companies simply because they are hostile to labor unions, said Anastasia Christman, an expert on government contracting at the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group. But in certain narrow cases, the government may be able to use its leverage as a contractor to encourage companies to take a neutral stance on organizing.
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April 26, 2021, 6:10 p.m. ET
For example, if a federal agency were buying medical gloves from an aggressively anti-union company, it could tell the company that “your vehement anti-labor practices have demonstrated a higher risk for a labor disruption,” Ms. Christman said. She added that the agency might be able to conclude: “We can’t have $15 million worth of purple gloves stuck in a warehouse somewhere. We need to find a more reliable path to getting that stuff.”
Even before the announcement of the task force, many labor leaders regarded Mr. Biden as the most pro-union president in generations. They cited his quick ouster of Trump appointees they regarded as anti-labor, the tens of billions of dollars for shoring up union pension plans enacted in his pandemic relief bill and a video message during a recent union campaign at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama warning employers not to coerce or threaten workers who are deciding whether to unionize.
Many union advocates have compared him favorably with his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, who they complained was loath to support unions vocally.
The task force comes at a particularly frustrating moment for organized labor. Roughly two-thirds of Americans approve of unions, according to a 2020 Gallup poll, but just over 6 percent of private-sector workers belong to them.
Mr. Biden’s task force will solicit the views of union leaders, academics and labor advocates and is to deliver its recommendations within 180 days.
Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh will serve as vice chair of the group, which will include Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the White House economic advisers Cecilia Rouse and Brian Deese, and the White House climate adviser, Gina McCarthy.