Sep 6, 2023 - Economy

Why the Biden administration prefers to "stay out" of labor negotiations

Illustration of President Biden exiting the frame of two overlapping speech bubbles

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The White House prefers to keep out of labor negotiations, acting Labor Secretary Julie Su tells Axios in an interview.

Why it matters: With the possibility of another economy-shaking strike on the horizon — now it's auto workers; earlier this summer it was UPS — the Biden administration's stance on unions is an important factor in talks, whether they're at the table or not.

State of play: As Su explains, the idea is to refrain from meddling in a process that the pro-labor administration believes in. "Our stance is to stay out, respect the parties unless asked, or unless there's some reason why we believe that we could be helpful," she says.

  • "This president and I really believe in the collective bargaining process, which is premised on the parties coming together, sitting down, negotiating, grappling with hard things, and coming to resolution."
  • That's what ultimately played out in talks between the Teamsters union and UPS earlier this summer — the White House stayed out of those negotiations, even as industry groups asked them to get involved.

Between the lines: Though the administration isn't at the table in the contentious talks between the auto workers union and the three big automakers, President Biden has taken what one labor expert called the "unusual" step of putting out a statement supportive of a fair outcome for workers.

  • The administration's statement on the Hollywood actors' strike back in July was similar.

Zoom out: The choice not to get involved can be just as impactful — often favoring the union — than meddling in talks, and it's certainly politically far less risky.

  • If Biden were to get involved in negotiations in a dispute and it didn't go well, "the public might blame him for the economic repercussions," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, senior lecturer at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

The big picture: A president getting involved in a labor battle can mean a lot of different things, depending on the politics of a given administration and the stakes in the labor battle itself. For example, the White House could...

  • Sit at the negotiating table, or even force a contract through over worker objections, using federal law. That might happen in a case where the White House is, by law, required to get involved. Like with the rail workers last year.
  • Sit at the table, when asked. That's what happened earlier this year when Su helped negotiate a contract at the West Coast ports.
  • Order workers back to the job. If a strike or a lockout happens in an economically crucial industry, a president can declare an emergency and put an end to it. That's what happened in 2002 when President George W. Bush invoked the emergency provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act to reopen the West Coast ports during a tense period.

Zoom in: Staying out of talks doesn't mean staying away entirely. The administration stays in touch with the parties when it comes to these big labor disputes.

  • Biden has assigned a point person at the White House, Gene Sperling, to keep in touch with the parties in the auto worker talks.
  • Sperling isn't at the negotiating table, Su emphasized. He is acting as the administration point person on questions that come up, like around any federal investments in clean energy — there's a lot to keep track of stemming from the Inflation Reduction Act.

What to watch: The current UAW contract ends on Sept. 14, and industry insiders say a strike is a real possibility.

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