The Role of Unions in Biden's Win

American unions were instrumental in the recovery of states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, as well as in Biden's victories in Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, and they are threatening with a general strike if Trump refuses to accept the election results.

Biden knew beforehand that he would have no chance of winning if he did not recover for the Democratic Party, the three "blue" states lost in 2016: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. These three states were part of “the Blue Wall", a group of 20 Democratic states that practically guaranteed victory in the presidential elections. These are three complex states, with a large, white, rural population which is predominantly Republican, which is surpassed by the large industrial cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, where the vote of the white blue-collar working class has traditionally predominated, and where unions have a higher incidence.

This is precisely where Trump struck in 2016, breaking the Democratic spinal column, with a considerable sector of the traditional white working class –an estimated 30% of unionized workers- switching sides and voting for the Republicans, allowing them to win the three states that gave him the presidential victory.


Biden's plan to strengthen unions

For this reason, Biden included in his program a detailed "Plan to strengthen the organization of workers, collective bargaining and unions", which includes: the recovery of the right to collective bargaining for state, private, rural and independent workers; strong controls and sanctions for the interference of companies in the freedom of association of their staff; restrictions on newly formed yellow unions to displace traditional unions from negotiations; the repeal of laws that prohibited unions from receiving discounts made to unaffiliated workers; the creation of a union commission in the cabinet that should present, within the first 100 days of the new administration, a plan to “dramatically increase union density” in the United States; the assurance of the right of subcontracted workers to bargain collectively with parent companies; the strengthening of the right to strike; the exclusion as contractors of the State of companies that do not comply with labor and union legislation; etc. On the other hand, one of the first measures promised by Biden is a 100% increase in the minimum wage, which would go from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour.

Apparently, the Democratic Party has taken note of the deep social phenomenon that caused a sizeable section of the organized working class to vote for Trump and support his protectionist and reindustrialization policies to protect jobs. This trend seems to be in line with rumors that Bernie Sanders, the leader of the left wing of the Democratic Party, could be Biden's next Secretary of Labor. The election of Kamala Harris as the Vice President, who made union demands one of the bases of her candidacy, seems to go in the same pro-union direction. One of Harris’ (female, Afro-American, daughter of a Jamaican father and a Hindu mother) main proposals was to repeal the so-called “labor freedom laws” that prohibit establishing what in Argentina are called “solidarity quotas”, that is, mandatory discounts established by collective agreement to unaffiliated workers as compensation for the benefits obtained from union action.

Trump made an inexplicable political mistake, which led him to lose the support he had secured in a sector of the white working class: unconcern in the face of the pandemic. Until February 2020, Trump's electoral advantage was incalculable. But Trump's policy of prioritizing the economy over health changed everything. The results were disastrous, both financially, and with regards to lives lost and infections. And what was even worse for the electoral result: it was interpreted by broad sectors of the working class, who had to continue working without adequate measures of protection, as the abandonment of workers in the face of the pandemic.

Aware that his luck depended mainly on recovering the workers' vote lost in 2016, Biden decided to launch his campaign in the powerful metallurgical union of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), where he defined himself as "a man of the union movement".


Trade union mobilization in six key states

Despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the mobilization of the labor movement in favor of Biden in the so-called “battleground states” was palpable. Not just in the three states lost in 2016, but in others like Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada.

Many unions officially declared their support for the Biden ticket. This was done by the AFL-CIO and the majority of the unions affiliated to that confederation. And so did the large unions affiliated with Change to Win (CTW), the other American confederation, such as the Truckers Union (Teamsters) and the SEIU (health, public services and related sectors).

In addition, unions created and joined progressive community networks, as happened in Pennsylvania with the health union joining Black Voters Matter, GOTV (Get Out The Vote) and Our Future PA, demanding that the vote counting not stop until every vote is counted. Unions across the country formed the Union Action to Defend Democracy (LADD) network.

In Las Vegas, the capital of the state of Nevada, the activists of the Culinary Union, where half are of Latino origin, visited half a million homes asking for a vote for Biden. In Pennsylvania, they toured the popular neighborhoods, visiting homes at the rate of 60 houses per minute.


The threat of a general strike

With the elections over and the final scrutiny still pending in the six key states in which union performance was decisive, Trump declared that there had been fraud and began to show signs that he would not recognize Biden as the winner. In an exceptional gesture for the United States, the labor movement began to analyze the possibility of declaring a national general strike in case Trump persists in his refusal, something that has never happened in the United States.

Three days after the elections, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO (the powerful American union confederation), demanded recognition for the labor movement for its role in the Democratic victory: “We brought out the vote. In Wisconsin, in Michigan, in Pennsylvania. Joe Biden's firewall was built by unionized workers".

This does not mean, of course, that Biden's international policy towards Latin America and specifically towards Argentina, is going to change radically. Foreign policy runs along very different lines than domestic labor policy. Bolsonaro, who counted on Trump as his only international supporter, and Bolsonaro's son -who coordinates the operations of the ultra-right movements in Latin America, including those of the hard-line macrismo- will surely weaken, but not much more than that. The harsh warmongering strategy towards China promoted by Trump will probably also change and perhaps the possibility of establishing a new multilateralism will be analyzed, which could prevent, among other things, a new pandemic (that would be terrifying for the world).

Meanwhile, the American labor movement is hopeful and some unionists are even saying that the Biden presidency will bring a "great resurgence of unionism" and that Biden will be the "most pro-union president in a long, long time".


Alberto “Pepe” Robles is a union lawyer with expertise in international labor relations, and a professor at the Julio Godio World of Work Institute of the National University of Tres de Febrero (UNTREF), He has a degree in Labor Relations from the University of Buenos Aires, and a  Postgraduate in Human Resources from the University of San Andrés.

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