The American Political Economy Blog

Symposium on Labor and Workers in the American Political Economy

Making Sense of the Labor Movement Moment and the Biden-Harris Labor Agenda: An American Political Economy Perspective

Reviewing current labor organizing and federal policy using an American Political Economy framework.
Making Sense of the Labor Movement Moment and the Biden-Harris Labor Agenda: An American Political Economy Perspective

Beginning in 2018 and accelerating through and after the COVID-19 pandemic, workers have expressed new support for unions and collective action. Just before the pandemic, public school teachers in conservative states went on strike to demand more resources for their students and schools and often won important new gains. Their collective action brought the sum of workers involved in large-scale strikes to a thirty-year high. During the peak of the pandemic, frontline workers in retail, health care, public transportation, and education protested unsafe working conditions and demanded access to protective equipment, testing, and paid sick leave. And as the economy rebounded, graduate students, Starbucks workers, journalists, software designers, and other workers launched hundreds of new organizing drives–with a record 60% increase in workers petitioning the National Labor Relations Board for new unions. The figure below uses data from Union Elections compiled by Kevin Reuning to show the surge of new union elections in recent years.  

Already-unionized workers also took advantage of a tight labor market, with high-profile strike actions threatened and taken among actors, script writers, automobile workers, nurses, and delivery drivers resulting in historic contract wins for those unions. Data from Bloomberg Law, for instance, documents that recent wins in collective bargaining put union wage increases at their highest level since 1990.  

How should we make sense of this upsurge in worker activism and interest in unionization in the United States? And what does it tell us about the state of labor in the distinctive U.S. political economy? This symposium focuses on understanding the labor movement moment using the tools and frameworks of American Political Economy (APE), featuring a variety of APE scholars working on labor-related issues who each bring different perspectives to bear on this question–from the evolution of individual occupations to the role of federalism in shaping opportunities for labor organizing and worker power.  

A piece from Warren Snead (Swarthmore) kicks off the symposium, describing how we should think about the Biden-Harris Administration’s shifts in the National Labor Relations Board in historical perspective. Next, we’ll feature pieces from Kate Andrias (Columbia) and Daniel Galvin (Northwestern) assessing state and local developments to build worker power. Andrias’ essay assesses the legal landscape of options for labor advocates who want to build power across states and localities. Zooming in on non-union, low-paid workers, Galvin’s essay describes new organizing and advocacy among these especially vulnerable workers. Third, Trevor Brown (Cornell) assesses the political economy of an incredibly important and growing occupation–health care workers–and their efforts to raise labor standards and build organized power, using many of the strategies outlined by Andrias in her piece. Musckaan Chauhan and Isabel Perera (Cornell) then discuss the threat posed by new forms of Artificial Intelligence for workers and how the Biden-Harris Administration has responded to those threats. Closing the symposium, we feature an interview with Theda Skocpol (Harvard) about her new book with Lainey Newman about the changing structure of steelworkers unions in Western Pennsylvania and implications for workers’ social identities and involvements in politics. Skocpol’s piece shows just how many important research questions remain for APE scholars around work and labor.

In the remainder of this introduction to the symposium, I focus on one aspect of the current labor movement moment: taking stock of the Biden-Harris Administration’s labor agenda and how it has been shaped by, and hopes to shape, the political economy in the United States.  

The Meta-Politics of the APE that the Biden-Harris Administration Confronted

I start by stepping back to examine the “meta politics” in which Biden and his team had space to govern on labor policy. Consider the following characteristics of the American state that our APE framework has previously highlighted and their implications for the new administration’s labor agenda:

  • Separation of powers, veto points, and a uniquely powerful judiciary: We begin with a fundamental element of the U.S. state: its high degree of horizontal fragmentation of authority between the Presidency and Congress, and a correspondingly large number of veto points that can hold up new policy development–and give outsized leverage to individual holdout legislators. This fragmentation coupled with a razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate made it all but impossible for the Biden-Harris Administration, despite lofty campaign pledges, to enact more sweeping labor law reforms, including reforming the National Labor Relations Act to make it easier for workers to organize or increase paltry penalties on employers violating existing labor law (which Andrias and Snead expand on in more detail). Outside of Congress, one especially important horizontal veto point is the judiciary, and above all the Supreme Court. Relatively unique in comparative perspective for its power to set nationwide policy, the Court has also been transformed by decades of conservative mobilization. It has become a powerful foe of workers rights and unions. That orientation was on full display during the Biden-Harris Administration, when in a landmark decision the conservative Court majority ruled that the Administration did not have the power to enforce workplace health and safety standards created to protect workers from the spread of COVID-19, arguing that doing so exceeded the mandate of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
  • Fragmentation of the executive branch:  Another way that the U.S. federal government stands out in comparative perspective is the fragmentation of the executive branch, with many different agencies that have overlapping jurisdictions and portfolios. In this case, we will see that this is one place where the Biden-Harris Administration took important new steps to, for the first time, increase coordination across otherwise disparate agencies to advance a coherent pro-labor agenda, for instance, coordinating work across the antitrust and competition agencies that had not previously focused on worker perspectives on their issues (including the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture).  
  • A high number of political appointees and presidential control of agency staffing: Another highly distinctive aspect of the U.S. executive branch is the large number of political appointees, with some 4,000 political slots that each presidential administration can fill each term. Here too the Biden-Harris Administration took important actions to staff up key labor agencies with appointees who were supportive of an ambitious pro-union, pro-worker agenda, from top leaders to more junior staff, who collectively led new policy initiatives across the government (including protecting workers against the threats posed by Artificial Intelligence, as Chauhan and Perera describe in their piece).
  • Federalism: Aside from the horizontal dispersion of power across the executive branch, Congress, and the judiciary, power in the American political economy is also shared vertically, with states and localities sharing power with the federal government. In labor policy, this cuts for and against union power, as Andrias, Brown, and Galvin all expand on. The Supreme Court has generally constrained states from taking actions that could directly regulate private sector labor unions–with a notable exception for state actions designed to weaken unions (so-called right-to-work laws, which make it harder for unions to collect fees from workers whom they represent, are permissible). Even so, a number of states are now experimenting with innovative new forms of worker legislation that can help set higher labor standards even within the strictures of the current court, perhaps most ambitiously creating sectoral standard-setting bodies for specific industries that give workers and unions a formal seat at the table in setting training and workforce development, wage and hour, and health and safety policies in those sectors. And beyond the direct labor policy space, as we will see below states and localities are also the primary decisionmakers implementing historic infrastructure investments passed by Congress over the past three years, making consequential decisions that can help build worker power–or not.
  • Decentralized labor law regime: One of the most important–and distinctive–features of the U.S. system of labor law in the private sector is how private sector workers must generally organize workplaces and collectively bargain one store, plant, or worksite at a time. By comparison, workers in many other rich democracies can organize and bargain across entire sectors and regions. The highly decentralized labor law regime for private sector workers increases employers’ incentives to oppose unions, reduces workers’ bargaining power, and makes it harder for workers to organize. It also means that despite rising new interest in unions from workers and support for the general public, workers face steep obstacles to translating that interest into new unions with first contracts.  
  • Fragmented and uncoordinated producer groups: Last, in part as a result of the decentralized labor law regime, producer groups representing business and labor are far less coordinated and more fragmented than they are in other rich democracies, with less capacity to reach agreements over shared challenges and bargain jointly with the government. This made it substantially more difficult for the incoming Biden-Harris Administration to design and implement efforts to support workers and businesses during the pandemic, including payroll supports, unemployment benefits, and workplace health and safety protections.  

The Biden-Harris Labor Agenda

Facing this set of institutional arrangements inherited through the U.S. political economy, how did the Biden-Harris Administration respond? I first consider four of the most important steps:  

  • Investing in the COVID-19 economic recovery: Perhaps the most important pro-labor step that the Biden-Harris Administration took was to take advantage of majorities in Congress to pass the American Rescue Plan Act as its first legislative priority. Investing nearly $2 trillion in recovery efforts on top of some $3.5 trillion already passed under the Trump Administration, Biden-Harris Administration leaders sought to ensure that they would not make the same mistake of the Obama-Biden Administration in lowballing their stimulus package–recognizing that they were unlikely to get a second opportunity to do so. Although the U.S. was unable to design the kind of labor market supports that could help employers retain labor in the absence of greater coordination between unions and business associations, Congress instead doubled down on payments to the unemployed, aid to states and localities, and a temporary but dramatic increase in the generosity of key social programs such as food assistance, rental assistance, and public health insurance. Together with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the U.S. stimulus–the largest in the world–helped prevent material suffering during the pandemic and sparked a rapid recovery and red-hot labor market. With unemployment falling to historic lows, workers, especially low-paid workers, gained new bargaining power and were able to demand pay raises, improved benefits, and better working conditions. Just as importantly, a tighter labor market also buoyed worker organizing, empowering workers to take risky collective actions knowing that they could find alternative work and putting pressure on employers to bargain with workers.  

Consider the specific case of expanded unemployment benefits. A survey of essential, frontline workers I conducted in 2020 together with Suresh Naidu, Adam Reich, and Patrick Youngblood asked those workers about their perception of how easily they could receive the newly expanded unemployment benefits if they lost their jobs and their interest in taking various forms of labor action at work. We found a tight relationship: the more that workers felt that they would be able to easily access unemployment benefits, the more likely they were to express interest in taking collection action at their jobs. We also found that workers who felt that they would be able to more easily access unemployment benefits reported that they would be less fearful of losing their job or wages as a result of that collective action.  

The figure below shows the relationship between these variables–and strongly suggests that the unemployment benefit expansions that began in the Trump Administration and continued through the Biden Administration played an important role in supporting greater worker interest and willingness to engage in workplace collective action.  

Evidence on the Relationship between Expanded Unemployment Benefit Access and Interest in Workplace Action


  • Pursuing pro-labor appointments and policymaking in key labor agencies: Taking advantage of the uniquely expansive appointments power of U.S. presidents, President Biden brought in a cohort of new, pro-worker leaders into key labor agencies. Most prominently, Biden took the previously unprecedented step of firing the Trump-appointed General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Peter Robb, and replacing him with Jennifer Abruzzo, a distinguished labor-side lawyer. Abruzzo has since steered the NLRB towards new, pro-labor legal interpretations that have administratively implemented many of the pieces of federal labor law reform that Democrats have been unable to pass through Congress.  

Outside of the NLRB, for the first time in five decades, a union leader–Marty Walsh–was tapped to run the Department of Labor. And while Democratic presidents frequently turn to the labor movement for labor policy staff roles at DOL and White House, Biden stood out for pulling more deeply from unions and other worker advocacy groups for these lower-level, but no less critical, appointments. This labor team moved quickly on a number of important policy steps to support workers, including rebuilding strategic enforcement capacity, supporting overhauls of the unemployment insurance system, and enacting new protections for workers on issues such as retirement plan protections, misclassification of workers, and overtime pay. Administration labor staff have also used the bully pulpit in historic new ways, for instance, having President Biden support striking workers (in the case of the autoworkers) and workers in new organizing drives (in the case of Amazon warehouse workers), as well as encouraging agencies to share more information with workers about their union rights. A big part of the story of why the Biden-Harris Administration had such labor-friendly staffing–and policy outputs–can be traced to the changing nature of the Democratic party coalition and the rising prominence of economic redistribution (and predistribution) as a tool for holding that coalition together.

  • Coordinating pro-labor policies in non-labor agencies: No less significant than the pro-labor policies of the traditional labor agencies like the NLRB and DOL have been how the Biden-Harris Administration has helped to channel a worker-focused agenda in non-labor agencies, like the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. New government-wide initiatives to promote market competition have helped to center worker interests in antitrust policy, including considering the effects of mergers on wages and working conditions. New memoranda of understanding between agencies, such as the Department of Justice and DOL, have helped center worker interests across enforcement actions. And the Administration has also helped to bring greater awareness of how federal agencies could support worker organizing and collective bargaining through a new government-wide task force, including through their grants, contracts, and their own workforces (as employers themselves that can do a better job of facilitating new worker organizing and bargaining in good faith with existing unions). Through these and other measures, the Biden administration has tried to embed greater and more cohort support for workers and unions across the highly fragmented executive branch. These steps reveal how greater interagency coordination, though challenging, can help increase an administration’s policy impact beyond the agencies that traditionally “own” particular issues.  
  • Leveraging new federal investments to support good jobs and worker power: One especially important cross-government initiative to support worker power has come with the historic investments that the Biden-Harris White House secured with Congress, totaling over $2 trillion spent on new infrastructure, supporting a green transition, and in high tech production in the CHIPS and Science Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act. These laws frequently contain provisions incentivizing use of unionized labor, and the Administration, particularly through inter-executive branch lobbying and advocacy by the Department of Labor’s Good Jobs Initiative, has sought to embed further pro-worker standards in the grants and contracts developed by agencies implementing the laws, including provisions such as labor peace, labor neutrality, project labor agreements, and community benefit agreements (see the figure below the share of federal funding from different agencies that has embedded pro-worker standards with the assistance of DOL). These steps illustrate just how powerful federal spending can be as a lever for market-making and predistribution, as well as how one federal agency (here, DOL) can be a lobbyist and resource for other agencies in trying to embed a government-wide initiative in the fragmented executive branch.

Federal Infrastructure Funding Opportunities with Embedded Labor Standards, by Agency


Assessing the Impact of the Biden-Harris Labor Agenda

What are likely to be the enduring effects of this agenda? While it is too soon to offer a definitive answer, we can assess the intermediary steps that will need to happen for them to register an impact on labor power. Whether the administrative steps to expand workers’ rights to form and join unions will have any impact will depend on whether unions take advantage of these steps and begin organizing more workers–despite relatively low levels of investments in organizing by most unions in recent years. APE labor scholars should be tracking union spending on organizing (including hiring of new organizers) and the spread of new organizing drives that make use of the new policy levers provided by the Biden Administration. These efforts will also turn heavily on whether they survive the court challenges they have received and will continue to receive–especially in light of the Supreme Court’s broader skepticism towards federal administrative agency power. APE labor scholars should be tracking litigation against the DOL, NLRB, FTC, and other agencies that have promulgated labor-friendly regulations over the past three years, as well the fate of the federal regulatory state more generally at the Supreme Court. Above all, these efforts will depend heavily on whether Biden is reelected, as they will surely be among the first to be rolled back in a new Trump Administration.  

The impact of the ongoing federal investment on worker organizing is similarly uncertain: while the Biden-Harris Administration has succeeded in embedding many pro-labor provisions in grants and contracts, whether the recipients of those funds actually deploy those funds in a pro-labor manner–and whether unions will take advantage of those provisions–will depend on the choices made by grantees, especially localities and states, which are often facing low levels of bureaucratic capacity that hamper their ability to effectively manage federal infrastructure projects. APE scholars can have a potentially important role to play here tracking the adoption of labor standards in infrastructure projects and organizing drives building on those provisions.

This brief sketch has shown how an APE perspective can help us understand the landscape of opportunities and barriers faced by the candidate who pledged to be the most “most pro-labor president in history.” I encourage you to read each of the pieces in the symposium for a deeper examination of the current movement moment and what it means for the future of worker power and organizer labor.

About the Author
Alexander Hertel-Fernandez
Associate Professor of International and Public Affairs
Columbia University