In mid-February — barely a month into his term — President Biden gathered 10 union leaders in the Oval Office. The meeting lasted two hours.
"Every once in a while as president you get to invite close friends into the Oval," Biden said, laughing. He added: "These are the folks that brung me to the dance."
As a candidate, Biden pledged to be the most labor-friendly president ever. And unions are a key part of Biden's political coalition. But now, with his coronavirus relief bill moving through Congress, the president is enlisting labor support and input as his administration turns to what's likely next on the agenda: a massive infrastructure package that would also put the country on a path toward a much greener economy.
It's an effort that may test Biden's close relationship with unions.
"This president really gets it"
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was among the attendees at last month's Oval Office meeting. He told NPR in an interview that Biden understands and can relate to working people in ways that former President Donald Trump did not.
"This president really does get it," Trumka said. Of the meeting, he said: "It was the tone of a partnership, people trying to work together to improve our communities and make our economy better and get people back to work."
Terry O'Sullivan, general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America, was also at the White House session.
"He's comfortable talking about bread and butter issues, issues that affect the working class," he said of Biden, adding: "He's not bashful. He'll tell you what he's thinking."
The Trump administration regularly returned to the issue of rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, but never submitted comprehensive proposals to Congress.
O'Sullivan laments the past lack of success in getting a job-creating infrastructure bill moving. "I always say I'm tired of 'Infrastructure Week' because all we talk about is the need instead of talking about what we're doing about it," he said.
This time, he says, he expects some results.
Keystone decision brings some tension
At the White House, Trumka and O'Sullivan say there was discussion of the president's vision of an infrastructure bill that would invest in green jobs in renewable energy. The union position is that those new jobs would need to pay union-level wages, and that workers currently employed in coal mining, natural gas and related industries need to be assured that a green economy does not mean the end of their livelihood.
O'Sullivan says the current reality is that jobs in the renewable sector simply don't pay as much.
"The 10 largest wind farm projects — the 10 largest onshore projects — are all non-union, paying a construction laborer $16 to $17 an hour with no benefits," he pointed out. Comparable construction jobs for LIUNA members doing such work currently pay up to $30 an hour, plus benefits, the union says. That's the kind of pay gap that labor leaders are pressing the president to address.
And even with the mutual praise between the administration and labor leaders, there's already been some tension.
On his very first day in office, Biden used his authority to cancel construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have extended from Canada to Texas. That meant an end to about a thousand construction jobs, according to Keystone's president.
Many unions were not happy. O'Sullivan says the decision angered many of his LIUNA members.
"We were disappointed that it happened on the first day," he said. "The timing was especially bad, coming on day one."
But he also acknowledges that it was expected, given that as a candidate Biden had pledged to stop the controversial pipeline — an issue important to progressives.
But O'Sullivan and Trumka both say Biden should have paired the announcement with an infrastructure bill that would have more than offset the Keystone job losses.
It's telling, though, that the moment did not create a significant rift between the administration and its labor allies.
The labor movement is growing more diverse
It's also notable that while the labor movement may speak with one voice when it comes to organizing, good wages and job protections, that's not as much the case on an issue like the environment. Some of the traditional industrial and energy sector unions voice wariness about what the green economy will mean for their jobs, while other unions are much more supportive of initiatives to combat climate change.
Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University, notes that union demographics are changing rapidly. The growth in the movement is in unions with a majority women members, and more people of color. She says the new growth is among teachers, health care workers and those in the retail and service industries.
"And if you polled them, they support climate change," Bronfenbrenner said. "They live in places that are currently being affected by the fact that we haven't made progress on climate change."
Bronfenbrenner adds that that's a somewhat different point of view from that of the construction and other trade union figures who met to discuss infrastructure in the Oval Office with Biden. And she says that while Biden's comfort zone is more with the old-line industrial and construction unions, he needs to connect to all of labor.
The newer faces of the labor movement were especially important in helping Biden win in places like Georgia and Nevada as he secured his 2020 victory. So that means they have the president's ear on issues as well. But it also means he has to be mindful that the labor movement is much different than the one he dealt with in the past.
"A very difficult balancing act"
Joe Uehlein is president of the Labor Network for Sustainability. His roots are union — as a young man he worked construction at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant — and he's also a committed environmentalist.
Uehlein said of Biden: "He wants to be the best union president ever, but at the same time, he's also said he wants to be the president that finally does something real about addressing the climate crisis. That's going to be a very difficult balancing act."
Uehlein notes that while fast-growing unions like the Service Employees International Union embrace the "Green New Deal," which calls for rapidly phasing out fossil fuels, others, like LIUNA, want an "all of the above" energy policy, which means add renewables, but don't abandon fossil fuels.
"So they like wind and solar, but not as much as they like fossil fuels," Uehlein said. "They like all of it, but 'all of the above' is not a pathway to solving the climate crisis." He said Biden is "going to have to figure out a way to strike a bargain."
The president insists he can find a path, saying over and over, during the campaign and since, that his climate plan is a jobs plan. The AFL-CIO's Trumka agrees that climate change is a crisis, but he also insists that workers not be left out.
"People want to make everybody believe it's an either/or," Trumka said with some frustration, "that you have to [fix] climate change and [have] no jobs, or you can have good jobs and no climate change [solution]. That's just not true. There's a path to navigate where you can fix climate change and get good jobs."
Trumka says Biden understands that, but that he, as a union leader with the president's ear, is going to keep up the pressure.
Signals of reassurance
The administration sent union members another positive signal with Biden's selection of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as labor secretary. Walsh, who is awaiting confirmation by the U.S. Senate, was a longtime union official before getting involved in politics.
Trumka said Walsh is "going to be an exceptional labor secretary. He was an outstanding mayor, but most importantly, he carried the tools and he understands the importance of collective bargaining."
And if Biden disappointed many union members with his Keystone pipeline decision, a week ago he reinforced his support for workers and their right to organize. In a two-minute video, he indirectly referenced the current vote on whether to join a union by workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, stressing that it's the workers' choice and adding, "There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda, no supervisors to confront employees about their union preferences."
And given that it comes as the push for new infrastructure jobs gets underway, it can be seen as reassurance to union members broadly that he's in their corner.