Harris, Yellen Tout Unions as Part of White House Pitch to Labor

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen cast unions as a panacea for economic challenges facing the middle class as the White House looks to bolster its argument — and make appeals — to organized labor.

(Bloomberg) — Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen cast unions as a panacea for economic challenges facing the middle class as the White House looks to bolster its argument — and make appeals — to organized labor. 

Unions help with wage increases and access to fringe employment benefits, Yellen said on a call Monday with Vice President Kamala Harris. The two discussed the release of what was billed by the White House as the Treasury Department’s “most comprehensive ever look at the role that labor unions play” in the US economy.

“These findings challenge arguments that unions hold back growth,” Yellen said.

“Unions can play a role in addressing the challenges faced by the middle class,” she added. “Union workers have been the backbone of America’s middle class, and yet for too long, the contributions of union workers have not been fully appreciated.”

A key finding of the Treasury report released Monday is that unions raise the wages of members by a range of 10% to 15%, improving benefits and workplace protections such as retirement plans, workplace grievance policies and predictable work schedules.

Still, US union membership fell to a record low as a share of the workforce in 2022 to pre-Covid-19 pandemic levels, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said in a January report. 

On average, the median union worker earns about 20% higher wages than the median nonunion worker, the report says. That premium is especially potent for certain groups of workers, with Hispanic union workers earning 35% more than non-union workers. Women and Black union members respectively saw a 23% and 20% jump over their non-union counterparts.

The Treasury report is one of more than 70 actions implemented by the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, which President Joe Biden established by executive order in 2021 to strengthen unions hammered by years of falling membership.

Harris, chairs the task force and said that the report was a recommendation from it, characterizing the findings as “definitive.” 

“President Biden and I are building an economy where every person — not just the wealthy or well-connected — has the opportunity to thrive and simply put back, that is Bidenomics,” Harris said, using a term the White House has embraced for their economic agenda.

The bid to highlight benefits union workers have enjoyed under Biden comes as he looks to shore up his standing with that critical part of his electoral bloc. The campaign has sought to win early backing from labor groups, and at a rally in June, the AFL-CIO federation and 17 other unions announced their endorsement. 

Biden has regularly cast himself as the most pro-labor president in history, but many of his policies, such as an intervention to avoid a nationwide freight-rail strike and efforts to promote a transition to electric vehicles, have rankled union groups.

One powerful union, the United Auto Workers, is locked in contentious negotiations with three major automakers — General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV, which owns the Jeep and Ram brands — over pay, benefits, and the EV transition, raising worries about a potential work stoppage after the current contract expires on Sept. 14.

The union endorsed Biden in 2020 but has yet to do so for his reelection campaign, with UAW President Shawn Fain warning the president and Democrats that they need to do more to support organized labor’s fight for higher wages at battery plants.

Former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, has urged the union to endorse him — lambasting Biden’s clean-energy push as costing workers jobs and raising prices for consumers.

Biden on Friday said he is speaking to the union and expressed worries about a work stoppage, hours after the union said rank-and-file workers at Detroit’s legacy automakers voted to authorize a strike if needed. He has urged carmakers to avoid plant closings and ensure any necessary job transitions take place in the same factories and communities.

Earlier: Biden Says He’s Talking to UAW, Worried About Possible Strike

Biden has spent the summer touting his Bidenomics agenda, arguing his policies are bringing high-paying jobs for US workers and spurring growth. But the effort has struggled to reverse the poor marks voters give him on the economy.

Monday’s Treasury report argues unionization has had spillover effects for American workers broadly, leading to wage increases even for those not in a labor union, and by countering other trends impacting the US middle class such as rising health-care costs and poor retirement preparedness.

Strengthening unions could help to close gender and racial wage gaps, it says, given representation has significantly improved among union members since the 1950s.

–With assistance from Christopher Condon.

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