Biden Wants Jobs And A Green Economy. It Could Be A Tricky Balancing Act : NPR

President Biden and Vice President Harris invited ten union leaders to the Oval Office in mid-February. Biden is committed to being the most work-friendly president ever. Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images Hide caption

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Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

President Biden and Vice President Harris invited ten union leaders to the Oval Office in mid-February. Biden is committed to being the most work-friendly president ever.

Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

In mid-February – barely a month after his term in office – President Biden gathered ten union leaders in the Oval Office. The meeting lasted two hours.

“Every now and then, as president, you can invite close friends to the oval,” said Biden with a laugh. He added, “These are the people who got me to dance.”

As a candidate, Biden pledged to be the most work-friendly president ever. And unions are an integral part of Biden’s political coalition. But now that his Coronavirus Relief Act goes through Congress, the president is calling for labor support and input while his administration turns to what’s next on the agenda: a massive infrastructure package the country is on its way to as well a much greener economy.

It is an effort that could test Biden’s close ties with unions.

“This President really understands”

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka attended 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 understands,” said Trumka. Speaking of the meeting, he said, “It was the tone of partnership, people trying to work together to improve our communities, improve our economies and get people back to work.”

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Terry O’Sullivan, President General of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, also attended the White House meeting.

“He likes to talk about bread and butter problems, problems that affect the working class,” he said of Biden, adding, “He’s not shy. He will tell you what he thinks.”

The Trump administration regularly returned on the subject of rebuilding national infrastructure, but never made comprehensive proposals to Congress.

O’Sullivan laments the lack of success in the past in implementing an infrastructure job creation law. “I always say I’m sick of ‘Infrastructure Week’ because we’re just talking about the need rather than what we’re doing about it,” he said.

This time, he says, he is expecting some results.

The decision on the keystone brings with it some tension

In the White House, Trumka and O’Sullivan said there was discussion about the president’s vision for an infrastructure bill that would invest in green renewable energy jobs. The union position is that these new jobs would have to pay union-level wages and that workers currently employed in coal mining, natural gas and related industries must be reassured that a green economy does not mean the end of their livelihoods.

O’Sullivan says the current reality is that renewable energy jobs just don’t pay that much.

“The 10 largest wind farm projects – the 10 largest onshore projects – are all union free and pay a construction worker $ 16-17 an hour with no benefits,” he said. Comparable construction jobs for LIUNA members doing such work currently pay up to $ 30 an hour plus benefits, the union said. This is the kind of pay gap that union leaders are pushing the president to close.

This 2020 photo, provided by the Bureau of Land Management, shows a bin north of Saco, Mont., For pipes to be used in the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Biden canceled the pipeline on his first day in office. Al Nash / Bureau of Land Management via AP Hide caption

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Al Nash / Land Management Bureau via AP

This 2020 photo, provided by the Bureau of Land Management, shows a bin north of Saco, Mont., For pipes to be used in the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Biden canceled the pipeline on his first day in office.

Al Nash / Land Management Bureau via AP

And despite the mutual praise between the administration and union leaders, there was already some tension.

On his first day in office, Biden used his authority to cancel construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have stretched from Canada to Texas. According to Keystone’s president, this marked the end of about a thousand construction works.

Many unions were not happy. O’Sullivan says the decision upset many of his LIUNA members.

“We were disappointed that it happened on the first day,” he said. “The timing was particularly bad and came on the first day.”

But he also admits that this was expected given that Biden, as a candidate, had pledged to stop the controversial pipeline – an issue that is important to progressives.

But O’Sullivan and Trumka both say Biden should have combined the announcement with an infrastructure bill that would have more than made up for the loss of Keystone jobs.

It is significant, however, that the moment has not created a significant gap between the administration and its work allies.

The labor movement is becoming more and more diverse

It is also noteworthy that while the labor movement speaks with one voice when it comes to organization, good wages and health and safety, it is less so on an issue like the environment. Some of the traditional unions in industry and energy have expressed concern about what the green economy will mean for their jobs, while other unions are much more supportive of climate change initiatives.

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Kate Bronfenbrenner, professor of work studies at Cornell University, notes that union demographics are changing rapidly. The movement has grown in unions with a majority female membership and more people of color. She says the new growth is in teachers, healthcare and retail and service workers.

“And if you’ve asked them, they support climate change,” said Bronfenbrenner. “They live in places that are currently affected by the fact that we have made no progress on climate change.”

Bronfenbrenner adds that this is a slightly different point of view than that of the construction and other union officials who met to discuss infrastructure with Biden in the Oval Office. And she says Biden’s comfort zone has more to do with the old-line industrial and construction unions, but he needs to connect with all workers.

The newer faces of the labor movement were especially important in helping Biden win in places like Georgia and Nevada as he secured his victory in 2020. This means that they also listen to the President when it comes to questions. But it also means that he must be aware that the labor movement is very different from what he has dealt with in the past.

“A very difficult balancing act”

Joe Uehlein is President of the Labor Network for Sustainability. His roots are in the union – as a young man he worked on construction at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant – and he is also a committed environmentalist.

Uehlein said of Biden: “He wants to be the best union president of all time, but at the same time he also wants to be the president who is finally doing something real about the climate crisis. It will be a very difficult compensation.” Plot.”

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Uehlein notes that fast-growing unions like the Service Employees International Union welcome the “Green New Deal,” which calls for a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, while others, like LIUNA, want an “all of the above” energy policy, which means they do add renewable energy, but don’t forego fossil fuels.

“They like wind and sun, but not as much as fossil fuels,” said Uehlein. “They like everything, but ‘all of the above’ is not a way of solving the climate crisis.” He said Biden will “have to find a way to get a deal”.

The president insists that throughout the campaign and over and over again, he can find a way to make his climate plan an employment plan. AFL-CIO’s Trumka agrees that climate change is a crisis but also insists that workers are not left out.

“People want to make everyone believe that it is an either / or,” said Trumka in 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 is a way you can fix climate change and get good jobs. ”

Trumka says Biden understands, but that as a union leader he’ll keep the pressure going with the president’s ear.

Signals of reassurance

The government sent another positive signal to union members when Biden selected Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as labor secretary. Waiting for Senate approval, Walsh was a longtime union representative before getting involved in politics.

Trumka said Walsh would be “an exceptional labor secretary. He was an excellent mayor, but most of all, he had the tools and he understood the importance of collective bargaining.”

Biden supports Amazon Warehouse Workers' Union Drive

And if Biden disappointed many union members with his decision on the Keystone pipeline, a week ago he stepped up his support for workers and their right to organize. In a two-minute video, he indirectly referred to the recent vote to unionize workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, stressed that it was workers’ choice, and added, “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda, no superiors confronting workers with their union preferences. ”

And given that the push for new infrastructure jobs is beginning, this can by and large be taken as confirmation to union members that he’s in their corner.

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