While its Build Back Better bill remains in limbo, the Biden Administration has been doing the smart thing by undertaking significant policy initiatives via executive order. Such steps cannot redistribute income or create big new social programs, but they can do some significant good.
That includes changes in the workplace. Biden recently signed an executive order requiring project labor agreements for all federal construction projects with a cost of $35 million or more. This will ensure that these projects are carried out by well-paid and well-trained tradespeople working with the protection of union contracts.
The order is not flawless. It contains exceptions that would allow agencies to forgo a PLA if they determine it would not advance “economy and efficiency” and under several other circumstances. Hopefully, these loopholes will not be abused. It’s a good sign that the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors put out a statement blasting the order, claiming it will “needlessly increase construction costs.”
Encouraging the creation of high-quality union jobs by federal contractors is also part of a report just issued by the Administration’s Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment. The document is an unabashed endorsement of unions as a force for raising living standards and workplace standards.
It argues for positioning the federal government as a model for cooperative labor-management relationships within its own workforce and for using the government’s spending power to promote stronger labor standards in private companies from which it purchases goods and services as well as in organizations receiving federal grants and loans.
The Task Force also makes the case for increasing union density in the private sector overall. Yet without legislation such as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which is stalled in the Senate, the Administration is limited to providing indirect support. The report includes a list of recommendations such as getting the National Labor Relations Board to use the web and social media to promote better understanding of worker organizing rights under existing federal law. It also suggests that high-level administration officials disseminate the same message through public service announcements.
This is all laudable but unlikely to make much of a difference. The main obstacle to worker organizing is not a lack of understanding of labor law but rather the ability of employers to flout that law with no real consequences.
More promising are the report’s recommendations concerning the enforcement of labor standards. Strong regulation works hand in hand with union organizing to exploitative working conditions.
Among the suggestions is a call for closer cooperation between the Labor Department and the Internal Revenue Service to investigate worker misclassification, a practice which not only undermines overtime pay rules but also interferes with proper payroll tax collection.
Reading the report, one gets the impression that the Task Force was trying to find every last way to use the federal government to help unions. The laundry list includes numerous arcane ideas such as instructing the Department of Education to include labor-management collaboration as a criterion in awarding competitive grants.
After decades in which the spirit of the National Labor Relations Act has been largely ignored by both Republican and Democratic presidents, it is heartening to see an administration so driven to promote labor rights. Yet it is going to take much more substantial measures to reverse the decline of private sector unionization.