On April 26, President Joe Biden signed an executive order spelling out his administration's goal of encouraging collective bargaining and other forms of worker organizing, following up on several campaign statements in support of organized labor.
Among other things, the order established the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment. Chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris and staffed by cabinet members, agency heads and various administration leaders, the task force "shall identify executive branch policies, practices, and programs that could be used, consistent with applicable law, to promote my Administration's policy of support for worker power, worker organizing, and collective bargaining," Biden said.
The group's recommendations are due within 180 days of the order. While the task force does not have broad authority to dramatically change work organizing in the private sector, its report is likely to be read "very closely" by the future general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, said Jim Paretti, shareholder at Littler Mendelson.
While the news may not dramatically impact employers in the short term, it could help them to understand the Biden administration's workforce goals and objectives.
The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, also known as the PRO Act, is a likely talking point for the group, Paretti said. The bill, which has passed the House, would expand certain legal definitions under the Fair Labor Standards Act and permit collective bargaining agreements to require all employees represented by the bargaining unit to pay union dues — potentially overriding state "right to work" laws.
But on a broader level, the task force serves as a recognition of issues raised by workers and their advocates, ranging from income inequality to the declining influence of labor unions, according to Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of The Worker Institute at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
"What this task force means, inside the White House, is actually a realization that we cannot continue as a society on a trend of increasing income inequality," Campos-Medina told HR Dive. "What it does is create a forum for more positive discussion as to, what's the role of government in improving working conditions."
In addition to the NLRB, Campos-Medina said the task force may discuss proposals for strengthening apprenticeship opportunities, increasing the federal minimum wage and addressing the needs of service-sector workers. That includes undocumented workers currently operating in the service economy, who "live in constant fear of retaliation by employers," Campos-Medina added. "Joining a union or demanding their rights could mean a deportation procedure."
One particular focus could be the gig economy; Reuters last month reported comments from Labor Secretary Marty Walsh on the classification issues surrounding gig workers. Opening collective bargaining opportunities to these workers may be on the table, Campos-Medina said, including ideas such as creating regional wage boards for the gig economy in a manner similar to the construction industry.
Employers can expect the Biden administration to continue to seek ways to make it easier for employees to organize, even if the power to do so may not reside within the executive branch itself, Paretti said. A Democratic majority NLRB also could seek to reverse certain decisions and regulatory proposals made by the Trump-era Board. In March, NLRB withdrew a proposed rule to make graduate students ineligible to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act.
Regardless of what the outcome of the task force's report will be, Paretti said employers operating in non-union settings "should absolutely be concerned that the administration has issued a full-throated endorsement of organizing." Ultimately, he added, the degree to which workers pursue organizing efforts will depend on how employers run their operations.