Pro-Union Joe and Grad Student Misgivings

The following piece by Harold Meyerson has been reprinted from The American Prospect.

Lamentably but predictably, some of the graduate student teaching and research assistants who are members of the United Auto Workers have denounced their union for endorsing Joe Biden’s re-election bid last month. Their anger at his still unconditional support for Israel in its war on Gaza is completely understandable. What they don’t seem to understand is that their call for their union to repudiate Biden is also a “fuck you” to the majority of UAW members who are actually autoworkers.

At the risk of belaboring what should be obvious, no American president ever backed unions generally, and the UAW in particular, in the way that Biden has. Joining the union’s picket line in its strike against the Big Three automakers, appointing officials at the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board who have pushed the pro-worker envelope beyond all expectation, Biden has worked to advance unions and collective bargaining in a way that no other president or elected official ever has. For that matter, it’s only due to the decisions by Democratic appointees to the NLRB that graduate students at private colleges and universities even have the right to join unions and win contracts. And by virtue of groundbreaking rulings by Biden’s appointees, undergraduate college employees and athletes can now organize as well (the Dartmouth men’s basketball team will shortly vote on unionizing in a first-ever NLRB-run election for college athletes).

It’s not as if other pro-union presidents didn’t have progressive blemishes. Franklin Roosevelt largely accommodated himself to the Jim Crow outrages and strictures imposed by the white Southern Democrats who were part of his party’s base. He refused to help Spain’s democratic government in its fight against Franco’s fascists. That said, he had the enthusiastic support of virtually all unions (and, in 1936 and 1944, the American Communist Party) in his bids for re-election, due to his precedent-setting support for unions—which still falls short of the level of support that Biden has given unions.

In its strike against the Big Three, the UAW won record contracts for its members (most particularly, its lowest-paid members) and is now conducting what could be a historic organizing campaign of the non-union auto factories in the South. (Just today, it announced that 50 percent of the workers at Volkswagen’s factory in Chattanooga had signed union affiliation cards.) It’s impossible to quantify how much the support from the Biden administration has helped the union and its members, but the UAW’s leaders—including those representing New York, New England, and the West Coast, which have heavy concentrations of grad student members—understand just how much Biden’s support is without precedent, and how total a disaster Trump’s election would be for American workers.

Ironically, in the larger world of American voters and American unions, Biden’s political problems are precisely the reverse of what we’ve just seen within the UAW. Polling shows him leading Trump among the college-educated and trailing badly within the Democrats’ onetime working-class base. For that matter, breaking down the exit poll numbers from the 2020 presidential election shows that Biden carried the vote of union members with college degrees by an overwhelming 48-percentage-point margin, but lost the vote of union members with no such degrees by six percentage points. That means that members of the two unions representing teachers (the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association), whose combined membership comes to about one-third of the nation’s union members, voted decisively for Biden, while his support among blue-collar and retail-sector union members was a sometime thing, at best.

Biden not only needs to make our support for Israel conditional on ending its war, supporting a two-state solution, and demolishing its West Bank settlements. Even more fundamentally, he needs to run on a future of industrial renewal (green variety), paid sick leave, affordable child care, a decent family policy (expanded child tax credits, for instance), higher taxes on the rich and corporations, and reining in the profit margins that have inflicted higher prices on American families. All that would not only help him with both sides of the UAW divide, but with both sides of the class divide in the American electorate.

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