Labor welcomes Biden inauguration; Some unions echo his unity theme
Joe Biden is sworn in Wednesday as the 46th president of the United States, with wife Jill Biden holding the five-inch-thick Bible that’s been in the Biden family for 128 years. Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during the 59th Presidential Inauguration. | Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP

WASHINGTON—As might be expected, union leaders warmly welcomed the Jan. 20 inauguration of Democratic President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, whom organized labor helped push to victory last fall.

But they split between endorsement and silence on a main theme of Biden’s inaugural address: Reaching for unity in a politically, culturally and ideologically deeply split country.

A typical comment came in an early tweet from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka: “Today we celebrate #InaugurationDay. We look forward to working with @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris to enact a pro-worker agenda.”

He later posted labor’s goals on the labor federation’s website, at www.workersfirstagenda.org and urged people to sign at a link there, demanding Biden and Congress enact its measures.

“Working people have been struggling far too long against unfair wages, benefit cuts and attacks on our right to form a union in our workplaces. That ends now,” declared Trumka.

“Our Workers First Agenda is about all of us, with no exclusions, because the real recovery working families need, expect and deserve is impossible without equity,” Trumka said, omitting the word “unity.”

The unity theme ran all through Biden’s address, given after Chief Justice John Roberts swore him into office at 11:49 a.m. Eastern Time, 11 minutes before Biden’s term officially began. And while Biden’s Oval Office predecessor, Republican Donald Trump, boycotted the ceremony, his Vice President, Mike Pence, led prominent party members there.

“Here we stand where days ago, a riotous mob tried to override our democracy,” Biden said of the Trump-incited Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol, where thousands aimed to keep the autocratic Republican in power, despite the results of last November’s election.

“It did not happen. It will not happen. It will never happen,” Biden declared.  But “disagreement must not lead to disunion, and I promise that I will be a president for all Americans—those that did not support me and those that did.”

While “speaking of unity may sound to some like a foolish fantasy…We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural against urban, conservative against liberal. We can do this if we open our hearts, show a little tolerance and stand in the other person’s shoes.”

Biden also invited, indeed urged, the U.S. people to join him in achieving that goal.

He also promised listeners that his government, unlike Trump’s regime, would be one of truth, not lies. And he promised again to tackle big-ticket issues, starting with overcoming the coronavirus pandemic, immediately. Others include pulling the U.S. out of the pandemic-caused depression, striving to end racial injustice, and combatting global warming.

“The dream of justice deferred will be denied no longer,” Biden stated. There was “the rise of white supremacy and domestic terrorism, which we must confront and we will defeat.”

Union leaders by and large took the same welcoming tack as Trumka did, often pairing it with goals they want the Biden-Harris administration to achieve.

“Today @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris are ready to build a brighter future for our country’s hardworking families. America’s essential workers need action to protect them on the frontlines and @UFCW will work with the @WhiteHouse to deliver,” the United Food and Commercial Workers tweeted.

That union is especially invested in anti-pandemic measures, as its 1.3 million members are heavily migrant, workers of color, or both, and include hundreds of thousands of grocery workers and meat and poultry plant packers.

All have been declared “essential,” and are more-exposed to the virus than other worker groups. Trump specifically ordered the packing plant workers back on the job even as their bosses often refused to protect them from the virus’s spread by providing masks, sanitizers, gloves and physical distancing. Tens of thousands have become ill and hundreds have died.

“Today is a new day, and all Americans must unite behind President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris as they prepare to lead our country through unprecedented challenges,” UFCW President Marc Perrone later elaborated. “Regardless of who any of us voted for, now is the time to heal and bridge our political divisions. We are all Americans first.”

Trumka, Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten and Machinists President Bob Martinez paired optimism with pro-worker agendas.

“The Machinists and our 600,000 members, no matter how they voted, are counting on this administration to lift our nation out of this time of despair and bring jobs, dignity and democracy back home,” Martinez said.

“We can all look forward to an administration that will set out to unite instead of divide. Now is the time to relearn how to respect those around us, regardless of our race, religion, gender or any other identity. This is America—and opportunity knocks for a great nation.

“We must return to putting the interests of the people ahead of corporations. We must advance the livelihoods and futures of working people and our communities.

“That means keeping workers safe, making it easier to form and join a union, affordable healthcare, secure retirements and much more. It means expanding ‘Buy American’ policies, fair trade and bringing jobs back home to the skilled and dedicated workers right here in America. It means real relief for the aerospace, defense, airline, manufacturing, healthcare workers and more who have bravely kept our nation and world moving through the COVID-19 pandemic,” Martinez said.

By helping Biden and Harris win, “We proved once again the power of working people standing together,” Amalgamated Transit Union President John Costa said. “Now is the time to help Joe Biden Build Back Better in the first 100 days to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and pass meaningful legislation that lifts up working people, expands public transit, and strengthens the labor movement.

“Now is the time to come together to pursue economic, social, and racial justice for all,” added Costa, whose 200,000 members include a large share of workers of color.

AFT’s Weingarten spent a whole long e-mail text detailing positive pro-worker and pro-people provisions of Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill, named the American Rescue Act. She urged members to e-mail or call lawmakers and demand immediate passage.

The key provisions, Weingarten said, would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, expand paid family and medical leave, add $1,400 per adult to the $600 checks already sent and add $400 in weekly federal jobless benefits to whatever states pay currently pandemic-sidelined workers.

Becky Pringle, president of the independent National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, contented herself with a one-paragraph congratulatory statement: “Educators are encouraged not only by Biden’s leadership, but also in knowing there is finally a true partner in the White House who will listen, value the ideas, and act in the best interest of students, educators, and families.”

Biden’s spouse, Dr. Jill Biden, is a longtime teacher and NEA member.

Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry, whose union has been the major backer of the Fight for $15 and a Union drive among low-wage workers nationwide, concentrated on that goal—and on passing the Protect The Right To Organize Act.

“Today working people will take a moment to mark how far we’ve come, but tomorrow morning we will double down on the work that still needs to be done to ensure everyone can join a union, regardless of where they work or what job they do,” she said.

“Essential workers have a clear demand: Respect us, protect us, pay us. Our new president has called on Congress to pass a $15 minimum wage, and to work with him to ensure caregiving jobs are good union jobs and to defeat the coronavirus. SEIU members and the millions more united in the Fight for $15 and a Union will not stop until this vision is a reality.”

The independent United Electrical Workers did not turn the other cheek against the Trump-inspired invaders of Jan. 6.

“The growth of far-right and white-supremacist groups is not only a danger to our democracy, and to the lives and safety of people of color, it is also a roadblock to the working-class unity that we need to win economic justice and a decent standard of living,” UE warned.

The answer, the often-outspoken UE said, is to hit the streets “to push for the policies we need, using tactics such as mass marches, strikes, and civil disobedience, including occupations of workplaces. This will be the only way to compel capitalist structures to concede to our demands. Neither the election results nor recent turmoil mean that either Biden or unions should pander to Republicans.”

“By focusing on issues that directly impact working people and their families, the labor movement can begin to heal divisions amplified during the current administration,” UE said.

“Without organized public pressure,’ Biden and Harris “quickly will be mired in merely reversing problems created in the last four years without any plan to comprehensively address the structural losses of the last 40 years…A better future for workers and labor is possible, but only if we demand it.”

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CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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