Is Biden the Most Pro-Union President in History?

The labor historian Erik Loomis discusses the president’s intervention on behalf of railway workers.

An illustration showing rail workers in black and white
Scott Olson / Getty; The Atlantic

For now, the country’s railroads will continue to run. A national strike—which would’ve started at midnight tonight and disrupted both freight and passenger rail—was averted by a tentative deal between union leaders and railroad management. That deal still needs to be ratified by the union members themselves.

President Joe Biden praised the agreement as “a big win for America.” The president “basically twisted the arm of the rail companies,” Erik Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island who specializes in U.S. labor history, told me. Biden’s rationale may have been partly political, Loomis said: A shutdown of freight deliveries could worsen inflation at a delicate moment for his approval rating. But another element of it, he said, could be linked to his Scranton identity and his upbringing in “one of these ultimate working-class industrial towns.”

Though Loomis warns that it is still early, he believes Biden might turn out to be the country’s most pro-union president. At the very least, he argues, the current president ranks well ahead of any recent Democratic president.

I caught up with Loomis by phone to discuss this morning’s news and Biden’s place in the arc of presidential labor history.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: Is it normal for the president and the Labor secretary to play intermediary between the railroad unions and management?

Erik Loomis: Yes and no. Certainly when you’re talking about transportation strikes—and you’re talking about the kind of labor action that could really shut down a large section of the economy—then, sure, yeah.

Where President Biden differs from previous presidents—both Democratic and Republican—is that he is really determined to not use his power to hurt unions. Whereas other past presidents may have put a lot of the pressure on the union leaders, President Biden is using his power to put pressure on the companies.

Nyce: Where does Biden rank, if you’ve got a scale from “hard on unions” to “pro-union”? Where would you put him in presidential history?

Loomis: Very close to the top of being pro-union. There really are not a lot of cases in American history, even in the peak period of union power and New Deal liberalism, in which a president was so openly pro-labor. You saw this going back to President Biden’s speech before the 2021 vote at the Amazon facility in Alabama. Even though that union effort failed, Biden urges workers to vote their conscience, reminding them that they have every right to join a union if they want to.

Presidents really haven’t done that before. Even FDR did not get that directly involved in individual union efforts. And at times, even Roosevelt would act against what unions wanted. While the labor movement did succeed more under FDR, that had much more to do with the conditions of the era and gargantuan Democratic majorities in both the House and the Senate than it did, per se, with FDR himself.

You really have to put Biden at the very top, even above other Democratic presidents of the last 80 or 90 years—certainly much more pro-labor than any recent Democratic president, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, or Jimmy Carter.

Nyce: Do you think he could be the most pro-union president we’ve ever had?

Loomis: Well, it’s a little early. We will have to see. But yes, one can make the case.

The case against this is [that] in the 1930s, you have the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act—all of these laws that created the conditions for modern labor organizing. This is, of course, true.

But once again, the difference is that Biden is using real political capital in favor of unions in a deeply divided America. He’s spending his relatively limited amount of political capital as a president in a very divided nation and in a divided party, and he’s spending that on the labor movement. There’s no other president that’s done that.

Lyndon Johnson, for instance, had big labor legislation before the Senate, and it almost passed. And in other issues, Johnson used his pressure to get through civil rights and Medicare. He didn’t do that with the labor bill. And the labor bill failed. You see this over and over again with Democratic presidents.

So there is a case to be made that, given the context and the circumstances, Biden has been either the most pro-union president or one of the most pro-union presidents in American history. And perhaps that’s because the bar is tremendously low. But that is what it is.

Nyce: When other presidents have had to deal with major strike threats, how do those usually look?

Loomis: If you want to go way, way back, railroad strikes were among the most important strikes in American history, in part because they have such power to shut the economy down. Presidents would use the military to absolutely crush them. This is what President Hayes does with the great railroad strike in 1877. This is what President Cleveland does with the Pullman strike in 1894. And these are among the iconic moments of the violent American labor past.

There are also airplane and shipping strikes. Presidents have had a variety of tactics over these sorts of things. For instance, infamously, President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers.

Sometimes things you wouldn’t expect to happen do happen. In 2002, for instance, President George W. Bush—no friend of organized labor, to say the least—actually intervenes when the longshoremen go out on strike. Because of the threat to the economy, he helps the workers invoke the Taft-Hartley Act against the companies.

Nyce: Obviously this industry was already organized, but there’s been a lot of talk just in general about a post-COVID union boom. How are you thinking about this moment in labor history? Do you think Biden is sort of reading the tea leaves here?

Loomis: I think that Biden genuinely feels unions personally. His Scranton past is a very big part of his biography. That’s one of these ultimate working-class industrial towns.

I do think that right now, because you are seeing an uptick in organizing, that the president is trying to re-level the playing field in labor law, and the administration of that law, that has really been tilted toward the companies for the last 40-plus years now.

He’s reading the tea leaves in the sense that he is spending political capital to help labor, because labor is taking the initiative to help themselves to a certain extent. But it should also be said that the president’s power here is somewhat limited.

Nyce: We saw some stories in the early days of COVID suggesting that previous pandemics have led to greater strengthening of labor protections. Do you think that this is a unique moment in history?

Loomis: I wouldn’t want to overgeneralize there. If you look at the Black Death, there’s no question that those who survived had significantly more labor power than they did before. But that was a situation where 25 to 50 percent of the population was dead.

With COVID, because the government stepped in and gave people money to stay at home, it allowed people the time and space to rethink their place in the economy. A lot of Americans got the opportunity to sit back, to not have to work at their pretty crappy job that they hate day in and day out. And they got to take the time to think about what it is they really wanted to do. Many of them have acted on that by resigning, going on strike, forming unions, demanding to work at home. Whatever that may be, it has led to some shifts in the labor market.

Nyce: Did anything about the railway negotiation surprise you?

Loomis: I wouldn’t say surprise me, but I would say there are two points worth noting.

One is how strongly the companies were determined to hold the line on such a basic universal right as being able to take sick leave. This is an industry with record profits that has done tremendously well over the last several years. It’s not surprising to me that companies would seek to continue to increase profits at the expense of worker health and safety. But it’s something that, if it doesn’t surprise us, should shock us, and something that we should find totally unacceptable in our society, that workers can’t have sick leave.

The other point I would make again is just how really pro-labor President Biden has been—in some ways unprecedented. The easiest thing for him to have done in this case would have been to basically take his mediation force’s findings and run with them.

Nyce: You’re a specialist in this area. What makes this story important to you? What are the big themes here that you think matter the most?

Loomis: One is that President Biden was going to do what he needed to do to make sure that this strike didn’t happen. Some of that is for political reasons, obviously. The last thing he needed, with already somewhat unfavorable political headwinds around his own approval rating, was a big strike to shut down the railroads and stressed supply chains that led to even more inflation.

The second big takeaway is President Biden’s really deep affiliation with the labor movement. In the 2020 presidential primaries, Biden was certainly not beloved by the left in many ways at all. Politicians like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are very good at talking about the 99 percent, the issues around minimum wages, and other things. What President Biden has that none of them have are actual tight connections with the unions themselves. That really makes a difference.