How Biden plans to handle a series of possible labor strikes across the country

PHILADELPHIA — The White House is grappling with several labor disputes that could undermine key factors in President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign, including an increasingly strong economy and his political support for labor unions.

Hollywood is already on strike. UPS workers could go on strike at the end of the month. And another sector close to Biden’s heart — the auto industry — could strike in the coming months if workers fail to accept new contracts with the Big Three automakers.

Biden is not inserting himself directly into any of the negotiations, officials said, even though he met with the president of the United Auto Workers at the White House on Wednesday. Instead, the officials said, Biden has assigned different administration officials to monitor the talks. Senior adviser Gene Sperling, for example, takes over as autoworker leader.

Biden’s labor allies fear his administration is seeking to intervene in a way that could undermine their bargaining position. The Teamsters – representing UPS workers – recently publicly urged him to stay out of talks at a critical stage.

UPS workers on the brink of strike action (Joe Raedle/Getty Images file)

UPS workers on the brink of strike action (Joe Raedle/Getty Images file)

White House officials say the administration’s stance on non-intervention will not change, even as growing work stoppages threaten to disrupt people’s lives and complicate the economic case it wants to present to voters.

“It’s obviously better for the economy if we can have these kinds of mutually beneficial deals before there’s a strike deadline,” Celeste Drake, deputy director of the National Economic Council focused on labor issues, said in an interview before Biden addressed a very union-focused audience here on Thursday. “But frankly, the president has said over and over again that he supports the right to strike.”

Biden’s strategy on labor disputes is a stark departure from how the White House handled a potentially crippling rail strike last year. In this case, administration officials directly brokered and ultimately imposed a brokered agreement between the freight carriers and a coalition of unions after several coalition members voted not to ratify it. It was a unique case, White House officials say, because the negotiations were taking place under the Railroad Labor Act, which required the administration to be involved.

Drake, who was previously a trade specialist for the AFL-CIO, argued that workers “feel empowered to organize and bargain hard.” And White House officials are downplaying any possibility that the disputes will undermine Biden’s newly stepped-up efforts to capitalize politically on falling inflation and a robust labor market as he runs for re-election.

That said, strikes are, by their very nature, designed to disrupt the economy, officials acknowledge.

The Teamsters and UPS will resume negotiations next week, facing a July 31 deadline to reach an agreement. Failure to reach an agreement could trigger the largest single-employer work stoppage in US history. White House officials who said just weeks ago they were confident a deal would be done now are less sure.

“We said at the White House that we took a tough stance – my neighborhood where I grew up in Boston, if two people had a disagreement and you had nothing to do with it, you just kept walking. And we’ve echoed that in the White House many times,” Teamsters President Sean O’Brien told wary members during a webinar this week. “The White House shouldn’t care about the Teamsters; they should care about American companies. … We’re not going to let anyone else implement a contract.

In a sign that a contractual agreement between the Teamsters and UPS could be reached before the deadline, UPS said in a statement Thursday, “We are ready to increase our industry-leading salary and benefits.”

A resolution of one of the labor disputes would be good news for the White House, which another White House official described as having “different levels of commitment in each case.” When UAW leaders visited the West Wing on Wednesday to update senior staff on the status of negotiations, Biden asked to speak directly to UAW President Shawn Fain for an update, in what the White House describes as a “short” meeting.

The UAW did not respond to requests for comment.

Separately, Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su recently played an active role in helping broker a tentative agreement between West Coast dockworkers and port operators.

Also this week, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients and Deputy Chief of Staff Natalie Quillian and National Economic Council Director Lael Brainard visited the AFL-CIO headquarters near the White House to discuss “fundamental labor issues” with its leaders and other unions, including how to ensure the administration implements key economic legislation to prioritize union work.

“The role of the federal government as a whole is not to get involved in all the negotiations,” Drake said, adding that there are ways “to help.”

“We are available to do so when welcomed by both parties,” she said.

Major unions, many of whom have endorsed Biden’s re-election, believe the political tide has turned in their favor, particularly after the Covid pandemic, which has put a sharp focus on working conditions and economic mobility. It is not just traditional unions that are pushing the boundaries, as previously unorganized workers seek to do.

On Thursday, Biden once again touted his union’s good faith. Addressing an audience in a Philadelphia shipyard hangar with workers in hard hats watching from the rafters, he explained how different unions from different states will manufacture components for a new Navy ship commissioned here to build offshore wind farms.

“Many of my union friends know that when I think of climate, I think of jobs. I am thinking of unionized jobs. Not a joke,” he said.

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