A Pro-Worker Vision Ahead of the State of the Union

Milwaukee Public School Teachers and Supporters Picket by Charles Edward Miller 4-24-18 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This year’s State of the Union (SOTU) speech represents an opportunity for President Biden to fight for the confidence of working people across the country, who elected him with a mandate to build back better. He must forge a just, equitable recovery that puts those most harmed and systematically oppressed – Black people and people of color including immigrants and women –  at the center of public policy.

While it may seem that gridlock in Washington will block any modicum of progress, the truth is that President Biden has levers at his disposal to build toward an economy that works for all of us. Workers will be watching, expecting the president to be relentless in fighting for workers’ rights, and curbing corporate power and exploitation.

President Biden should certainly celebrate the very real wins from the first year of his administration. The American Rescue Plan allowed working families to stay afloat under endlessly precarious circumstances. The historic package included eviction moratoriums, substantial federal funds for extended and enhanced unemployment insurance, and a direct stimulus payment of $1,400—all provisions needed for families to start getting back on their feet as the pandemic raged on.

The president  also inherited the task of reversing and overturning a host of deeply harmful rules and policies from the Trump era. He directed agencies to reexamine policies that undermine protections for people with pre-existing conditions as well as policies that make it harder to get Medicaid, such as work requirements. He raised the minimum wage of federal contract workers to $15 an hour in early 2022, up from the current $10.95, required a $15 minimum wage for federal contract workers with disabilities, and is phasing out the subminimum wage for tipped federal contract workers by 2024.

The administration withdrew or rescinded harmful regulations that misdefined the standards for joint employment and for who is considered an independent contractor under the FLSA, and replaced a regulation that would have allowed employers to take advantage of their tipped workers with one that is much more protective of them, limiting the amount of time they are allowed to do untipped work and still be paid a subminimum wage. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor (DOL) are returning to vigorous enforcement of worker protections, reversing the policies of amnesty and non-enforcement that became the hallmark of the Trump DOL. Although reversing  harmful policies may not make flashy headlines, it was an essential first step, and President Biden should receive credit for it.

Fast-food workers in New York and members of the Raise the Floor Alliance in Illinois are leading the charge by fighting for just-cause job protections which should be the bare minimum standard for good, fair employment. And brave workers at big-name employers like Starbucks, Apple, and Amazon are organizing unions and stepping out on strike because they understand the ability to join together and collectively shape our job conditions is the surest path to thriving communities. President Biden must continue to support these crucial campaigns to pass groundbreaking legislation at the federal level to make it easier to organize and bargain and to hold employers accountable.

This moment demands much more than undoing the last president’s damage. The status quo will not meet our needs for a just pandemic recovery or prepare us for the next crisis. It seems every time the president or Congress put forward a bold proposal to invest in working people, it gets batted down. Opponents of progress unfairly cite whatever economic issue of the moment can most conveniently get in the way of shared prosperity with solutions like raising wages, strengthening standards, making it easier for workers to join unions, repairing our unemployment system, and addressing entrenched structural racism and sexism.

Despite detractors, President Biden must govern from a place of abundance. We must strive for an economy in which all workers have agency in good, safe jobs. The United States can build a “good jobs economy” in which people can count on economic security over the course of their lives, where equity is baked into policies, and employers are accountable.

President Biden has plenty of opportunities to fill policy gaps and address problems structurally, not just on the surface. He can introduce a robust overtime rule so workers are compensated fairly for their labor and greedy employers can no longer get away with mandating that their employees work hours beyond 40 per week for free.  The president can finish what he started by raising wages for federal workers and lead more aggressively to increase the federal wage floor—which has been stuck at $7.25 per hour since 2009—to at least $15 an hour.

Workers laboring in the gig economy should have fair pay, ample benefits, and the right to come together with coworkers to negotiate for safe and healthy conditions. An industry that is defined by skirting regulation to undercut a workforce largely made up of people of color, companies must be accountable for how they treat their workers, no matter what the company calls the workers or how it classifies them. The Biden administration must strengthen policies and enforcement for workers misclassified as independent contractors and for temporary and other subcontracted workers.

One-time recovery packages simply do not pass muster as the pandemic enters its third year. It’s great that the administration supported an extension of CARES Act programs in the American Rescue Plan, but it needs to go even further by fighting for specific and comprehensive reform to our broken unemployment insurance system and strengthening health and safety protections and paid leave. Doing so will ensure that we’re ready for the next economic crisis when it inevitably arrives.

Finally, the president should use his bully pulpit to put forth the truth that pro-worker and worker-informed policies should be understood as thoughtful, solutions to unfair policies and laws that were designed decades ago to enrich corporations and hold workers back.

Workers are counting on this president. To get our economy where it needs to be, President Biden’s administration and leaders in Congress must follow workers’ leadership, champion their organizing, and adopt their demands.

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About the Author

Rebecca Dixon

Areas of expertise:
  • Occupational Segregation,
  • Program Management,
  • Unemployment Insurance,
  • Workplace Equity

NELP is led by President and Chief Executive Officer Rebecca Dixon. Rebecca is a respected national leader in federal workers’ rights advocacy and is in great demand for her thought leadership on issues of labor and racial, gender, and economic justice.

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