Worker Power Gets a Presidential Endorsement
November 15, 2023
The Bidenomics Brief is a Roosevelt Institute newsletter where we track the big debates and developments shaping the new economic paradigm.
Last week, we got a glimpse of what it looks like when the administration puts rebalancing power between workers and billionaires at the center of Bidenomics. In a historic speech on the UAW’s new contract, President Biden made a fulsome case for the centrality of worker power to his vision for the economy. We also take a look at how a shift in trade policy may point toward another piece of the new, post-neoliberal economic paradigm—though whether it’s a durable shift remains to be seen.
And a programming note: The Bidenomics Brief will be off next week and back in your inboxes after Thanksgiving.
Trading in an old paradigm
When people talk about the ways Bidenomics reflects a new approach to economic governance, trade policy isn’t often on the tips of their tongues. But there are signs that Bidenomics’ focus on reshaping markets and industries could lead to the beginning of a new paradigm in trade policy.
Last month, in a move that overturned a “longstanding constant of US trade policy,” the US withdrew its support for WTO proposals on data flows and digital commerce. The stated reason: because the US and other countries are looking to regulate Big Tech. “In order to provide enough policy space for those debates to unfold,” the Office of the US Trade Representative said, “the United States has removed its support for proposals that might prejudice or hinder those domestic policy considerations.”
This is a big change. For much of the past 30 years, administrations of both parties routinely pursued multilateral pacts that would “harmonize” international markets by limiting each nation’s ability to regulate their own domestic industries and economies. For years, US administrations scoffed at the Europeans for using a “precautionary principle” before greenlighting untested pesticides or unregulated tech monopolies. But now, the Biden administration is admitting that trade policy should “balance the right to regulate in the public interest and the need to address anticompetitive behavior in the digital economy.”
True, the Trump administration began to break from the bipartisan consensus on trade in a few high-profile instances, such as the launching of trade wars. But as Trump advisor Steve Bannon described, the 45th president viewed the “economic nationalism” of upending trade relations as a complement to the “deconstruction of the administrative state”—a project that removes the best tool the public has to avoid the worst excesses of unchecked capitalism and ensure a basic quality of life. The Trump administration, for example, proposed a set of WTO rules in 2019 to “allow free cross-border data flows and prohibit national requirements for data localization and reviews of software source code”—exactly the approach the Biden administration is now rejecting.
The Biden administration is certainly not batting a thousand when it comes to remaking trade policy, as many of our colleagues have rightly pointed out. But the Biden administration’s decision here not to use trade as a tool to prevent countries, ours and others, from regulating powerful multinational corporations is a shift away from the neoliberal trade consensus that marred decades of economic policy from Republicans and Democrats alike. Trade does not, and should not, exist to serve the needs of multinational corporations. Let’s hope we can make this the new Washington consensus for the coming generation.
Some Like It Hot
President Biden endorses worker power
Last week, President Biden gave a speech at a Stellantis plant in Belvidere, Illinois, that will reopen as a result of the agreement reached between the Big Three automakers and the United Auto Workers. The speech didn’t just affirm the remarkable achievements of the UAW—it opened the door to make rising worker power central to the story of how we grow the economy and to the new approach to economic governance.
In the speech, President Biden went far beyond his standard talking points on the role of unions in building the middle class. He reframed the role of government in managing the relationship between workers and employers, and argued that rising worker power is central to economic growth. “The critical piece of growing the economy is worker power,” he said. The president forcefully argued increasing union density and worker power were key to the revival of the American middle class: “Everybody—for the longest time . . . [said] the reason we were in trouble is ‘unions, unions.’ It’s the exact opposite.”
The president made a case for the power of unions to reshape the economy, and the role that the government plays in supporting them. He argued that the UAW’s successful strike against the Big Three—with strong support from his administration—could provide a model for workers in the auto industry and beyond: “I want this type of contract for all auto workers. And I have a feeling UAW has a plan for that,” likely referring to UAW’s already-announced plans to expand into Tesla and Honda, two of the largest nonunion auto manufacturers in the United States. He also made a strong case for the benefits of union contracts for even nonunionized workers: “Unions are not just good for union workers but nonunion workers as well. Unions raise standards across workplaces and industries, pushing up wages and strengthening benefits for everybody, whether you’re a union member or not.” This full-throated embrace of the benefits of unions to all working people is a real shift—both in substance and in style—from previous administrations.
But while the president went on to make some connections between the success of the UAW strikes and other parts of his economic agenda, there’s more that could be done to connect the dots between the Biden administration’s economic agenda and the rise in worker power we’re seeing across the economy. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act are supporting private-sector efforts to create new jobs, giving workers more “exit” options to leave the job they have and negotiate for a better one. The American Rescue Plan put money in the pockets of tens of millions of working families when they needed it most, driving a recovery that prevented economic “scarring” and giving Americans power over their economic lives. The National Labor Relations Board is making it easier for workers who want to form a union, and making it harder for employers to prevent them from getting a first contract, forcing employers to take workers’ collective demands far more seriously. And the president is even starting to use tax law, antitrust , and more to prevent multinational corporations from amassing so much power that they are beyond the reach of any of us to force them to the bargaining table—metaphorical or otherwise.
President Biden’s historic embrace of the striking UAW workers, and his vocal embrace of “worker power” as “the critical piece of growing the economy,” is heartening. Let’s hope to see the administration build out even more of the story of how this new approach to economic governance can—and has begun—to rebalance power for working people.
What to Read
- The White House released new research that shows how the American Rescue Plan’s Child Care Stabilization Funds led to stabilization in the childcare industry, which kept businesses open, workers employed, and mothers able to remain in the workforce.
- In Phenomenal World, Kate Mackenzie and Tim Sahay lay out how the hot labor markets and transition to clean energy are creating different conditions for workers in the global north and global south.
- In the New Republic, Roosevelt Fellow Kate Aronoff writes about how the canceled Ocean Wind farm plans we discussed in a previous brief show the problem with the Biden administration’s global plans for clean energy.
- We’re looking forward to the conversation on Thursday, November 16 at 2PM EST between Roosevelt Institute President and CEO Felicia Wong and Franklin Foer, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future. They’ll talk about our current economic moment, how we got here, and the achievements and challenges of implementing President Biden’s economic agenda.
Who Said It: JRB or FDR?
The connection between the economy and authoritarianism
As you know by now, we close every week with a quote from either President Biden or FDR. If you guessed last week’s quote was from FDR, you were right! The quote about how antitrust laws were born out of the rise of corporations that were as powerful as feudal barons was from FDR’s speech to the Commonwealth Club in September of 1932.
And now, for this week’s quote:
“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”