Strikes increase poses political test for Biden

From Hollywood to the Midwest, scores of union workers have gone on strike or threatened to walk off the job, emboldened by President Biden‘s boast that he‘s the most pro-union president in decades.

More than 100,000 workers are already on the picket lines and tens of thousands more could join them by the end of October, potentially touching off a strike wave not seen in the U.S. since the 1970s.

The unrest, which spans industries from agriculture to film production, threatens to further undermine an economy wracked by rising inflation.

It also sets up a political test for Mr. Biden, who doesn’t want to risk his support among union leaders but needs to get soaring prices under control ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

“These strikes are going to have an impact,” said Paul Clark, a professor of labor studies at Penn State University. “When employers raise wages, they raise prices to recapture what they are paying in higher labor costs, so we will see some of that.”

On Thursday, more than 10,000 workers at agricultural equipment manufacturer Deere & Co. went on strike. They joined 1,400 workers at the Kellogg Co., more than 2,000 nurses and other hospital workers in Buffalo, New York, 700 nurses in Massachusetts and nearly 160 caregivers in Connecticut on the picket lines.

Roughly 24,000 nurses and other health care workers at Kaiser Permanente this week authorized a strike and 60,000 workers in the entertainment industry have threatened to walk off the job Monday if their union doesn’t reach a deal with television and film studios.

More than 12,000 Seattle-area carpenters went back to work this week after a three-week strike that halted construction in the Pacific Northwest.

The number of work stoppages has declined in recent years as union memberships dwindled. In 2020, there were eight strikes involving more than 1,000 workers, the lowest number since 1947, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Since 2010, only 2019 has had more than 20 such strikes. In contrast, between 1980 and 2000, only 1997 saw fewer than 30 of those larger strikes, according to BLS data.

The unions are largely citing systemic issues as their reason for striking, including low pay, longer hours, better working conditions and improved safety.

But more recent events including Mr. Biden’s pro-union stance and the worker shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have given labor a shot in the arm.

“Right now the stars are aligned in favor of unions,” Mr. Clark said. “They have both low unemployment and you have a very friendly administration in Washington supportive of unions. Everything is in order for unions to take advantage of the situation right now.”

Mr. Biden has billed himself as an unabashed friend of labor.

On his first day in office, he signed an executive order making the creation of union jobs his administration’s top priority. In March, he made a video in support of Amazon workers’ right to unionize. He has touted his $4.7 trillion spending packages as a way to create high-paying union jobs.

“Clinton and Obama didn’t walk the walk,” Mr. Clark said. “Their rhetoric was pro-union, but their actions were not as supportive as labor expected. Now you have Biden whose rhetoric is more pro-union than those presidents and he’s following through.”

When asked about the strike wave, White House press secretary Jen Psaki doubled down on the president’s support for labor.

“The president and vice president often say that this is the most pro-union administration in history and they will continue to govern and lead with that in mind,” she said.

“They both feel [that] strongly supporting unions, the ability of workers to organize if they so choose, collective bargaining and the right to strike are fundamental rights,” she said.

“In healthy economies, employees must compete for workers and we are seeing that,” Ms. Psaki continued. “As unemployment drops, we are shifting to a market where workers have more bargaining power. Ultimately that is a good thing.”

She also dismissed concerns that the strikes could derail the economy, saying she hasn’t heard that concern from the White House economic team.

But the strikes are already having an impact on the economy.

Since Kellogg’s workers went on strike two weeks ago, the cereal maker’s stock has dipped by 6.5% and Deere & Co. stock tumbled by 7% Thursday after its workers hit the picket line.

Consumers will also likely feel the pinch as companies increase the prices of products like cereal to match the increased labor costs.

Rising prices have dogged Mr. Biden for most of his presidency. The Labor Department added to that headache Wednesday by revealing that the prices consumers pay for goods and services rose by 5.4% in September from a year earlier.

Inflation already remains at its highest rate in over a decade and the pandemic-fueled labor and materials shortages rumble through the economy.

The Biden administration has argued that inflation is a transitory effect of the post-pandemic rebound, but the Labor Department’s report undercuts that claim.

Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation, a conservative anti-union advocacy group, said inflation is a factor in the increased labor unrest, noting that workers are seeing higher wages to offset the increased cost of goods.

“When a mom goes to the store and sees a box of cereal costs $5, she is going to demand more wages,” he said. “The price pull of inflation is something that is very much in play in the market.”

If the strikes result in increased prices from goods ranging from cereal to farm equipment, Mr. Biden will face a tougher economic environment in which to navigate, especially with national polls and focus groups finding that many Americans are worried about inflation and rising costs.

“Those costs are going to hit the marketplace,” Mr. Mix said. “It creates a very difficult political position: risk the wrath of union officials or risk the potential electorate as we move into a crucial midterm year.”

Biden administration officials have downplayed the political impact of inflation also.

Ms. Psaki said Wednesday that the inflation figures’ time frame doesn’t match real-world perceptions.

“We all understand the American people are not looking at cost-to-cost comparisons from this year to two years ago; they’re looking at cost-to-cost comparisons to their checkbooks from eight months ago or 12 months ago. And even though, factually, if you look back to two years ago, things may be comparative, that’s not how people look at things,” she said.

Also on Wednesday, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain gave an approving retweet to a Harvard professor downplaying inflation as a “high-class” issue.

“Most of the economic problems we’re facing (inflation, supply chains, etc.) are high class problems. We wouldn’t have had them if the unemployment rate was still 10 percent,” wrote Jason Furman, also a chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under former President Obama.

Despite the impact on rising prices, analysts expect Mr. Biden to steer clear of getting himself involved in labor disputes.

The president won’t want to risk spoiling his relationship with the labor unions by doing anything other than being supportive of striking workers.

Jon Shelton, a labor historian at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, said Mr. Biden will likely stay mum by not encouraging unrest and also avoiding criticizing employers.

“I think there is a political risk in getting involved,” he said. “It’s not common for a president to get involved. I expect Mr. Biden will keep a hands-off approach while generally signifying that he supports the workers.”

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