White House Task Force Will Seek to Increase Unionization

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. May 7, 2021
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The White House

​President Joe Biden signed an executive order on April 26 to establish a White House task force to boost unionization. The White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment will make a set of recommendations within 180 days.

The task force will examine how existing policies, programs and practices can be used to promote worker organizing and collective bargaining in the federal government, then it will consider what new policies and regulatory and statutory changes are needed.

The president is "under a lot of pressure from labor to get the PRO [Protecting the Right to Organize] Act passed," said David Pryzbylski, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis. The task force might be used to "sway public opinion on the PRO Act."

With the PRO Act stalling in the Senate, labor law reforms to boost union membership may have to come primarily through administrative and executive actions, according to Kyllan Kershaw, an attorney with Seyfarth in Atlanta.

Phillip Wilson, president and general counsel of the Labor Relations Institute in Broken Arrow, Okla., said that union leaders see the Biden administration "as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rewrite labor law in their favor, and they are not going to stop until it happens."

'Next Step'

"The administration has already taken a number of steps to empower workers to organize," stated a White House fact sheet on the task force. "It has endorsed the PRO Act and other labor law reform bills, issued executive orders restoring collective bargaining in the federal sector and rescued the hard-earned pensions for millions of Americans through the American Rescue Plan. There is still much more the federal government can do to empower workers. The task force is the next step in these efforts."

The task force keeps a campaign promise, said Peter Spanos, an attorney with Taylor English in Atlanta. Biden's campaign specifically promised creating "a cabinet-level working group that will solely focus on promoting union organizing and collective bargaining in the public and private sectors" within the first 100 days of his administration.

The task force "is complementary to the PRO Act and would have been put into place even if the PRO Act had already become law," Spanos said.

High-Profile Members

"Since the task force consists of key presidential appointees from throughout the administration, increased union representation within the federal government seems inevitable," he added.

Chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris and vice-chaired by Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, the task force includes more than 20 cabinet members and heads of federal agencies.

Task force members include:

  • Acting Director of the Office of Personnel Management Kathleen McGettigan.
  • Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and Director of the Domestic Policy Council Susan Rice.
  • Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
  • Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo.
  • Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
  • Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
  • Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm.
  • Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra.
  • Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.
  • Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge.
  • Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.
  • Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen.
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough.

Task Force Goals

The first stated goal of the task force is to ensure that the federal government is "a model employer with respect to encouraging worker organizing and collective bargaining among its workforce."

The task force also will seek to:

  • Facilitate worker organizing across the country by taking a governmentwide approach to mobilize the federal government to encourage unions.
  • Increase unionization in underserved communities.
  • Increase union membership nationwide to grow a more inclusive middle class.

"At first, the task force will address using existing regulations and federal programs to promote worker organizing and collective bargaining within the federal government," Spanos said. Then, the task force will address new policies aimed at unionization in the private sector and employees of state governments.

"Due to the power of the federal purse, which is growing by trillions of dollars each year, the president has enormous powers over federal contractors and those who receive federal funds," said Michael Lotito, an attorney with Littler in San Francisco. Through executive orders, the president "can attempt to force contractors to reach agreement to be neutral in union campaigns, have a record absent of unfair labor practices, have arbitrators impose first contracts and more."

Biden also can issue an executive order that revives labor-management partnerships, said Martin Malin, professor of law and co-director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

[SHRM's members-only toolkit: Preparing for the Possibility of Union Organizing]

Historically Low Union Membership

"Only time will tell if the task force will be successful in increasing unionization," said Sarah Pawlicki, an attorney with Eastman & Smith in Toledo, Ohio. "Union membership, at only about 6 percent of the private-sector workforce, has been on a steady decline for decades. Reversing that decline will be difficult, even with a labor-friendly administration."

In 2020, union members made up just 10.8 percent of the total U.S. workforce, down from more than 30 percent in the 1950s.

"Regardless of task forces, rules or legislation, the first step to increasing unionization in the private sector is employees have to want to unionize," said Chris Bailey, an attorney with Greensfelder in St. Louis. The drop in the number of private-sector workers who are unionized has to be partly "attributed to employee sentiment toward unions," he said.

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