Why Are Major Unions Undermining the Progressive Strategy on Reconciliation?

Labor leaders from the AFL-CIO and AFT are undermining left Democrats in the reconciliation fight. But members are pushing back.

Jeff Schuhrke

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks during a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court June 9, 2021 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

As the congressional battle over President Biden’s domestic agenda reached a critical juncture last Thursday, some national labor leaders appeared to come down on the side of conservative Democrats aiming to stall or significantly downsize the proposed $3.5-trillion budget reconciliation bill.

Dubbed the Build Back Better Act, the reconciliation bill as currently designed would amount to what Sen. Bernie Sanders calls (I-Vt.) the most consequential piece of legislation for working people, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor since FDR and the New Deal of the 1930s.” It includes historic investments in healthcare, education and climate change policy, paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy. 

Importantly for the labor movement, the bill also reportedly includes key provisions of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—legislation that would reform labor law and remove many of the legal obstacles to forming a union. Among those provisions included in the Build Back Better Act are substantial fines against employers who commit unfair labor practices and a ban on the permanent replacement of striking workers. 

For months, Democratic leaders have said they would pursue a two-track” strategy of linking the Build Back Better Act with a smaller, bipartisan infrastructure bill championed especially by conservative Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin (W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Az.), which the Senate passed in August. The logic is that if the party’s conservative faction wants to see the bipartisan infrastructure bill make it to Biden’s desk, it must first get behind the larger reconciliation package.

There ain’t gonna be no bipartisan bill unless we’re going to have a reconciliation bill,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) promised in June. 

But giving in to pressure from nine conservative House Democrats with ties to the dark money group No Labels, last week Pelosi reversed course and planned to call a vote on the infrastructure bill before any deal was reached on the Build Back Better Act. The intent, made clear in a No Labels memo, was to decouple the two pieces of legislation so that conservative Democrats would no longer be forced to negotiate on the reconciliation bill.

The 96-member Congressional Progressive Caucus pushed back, threatening to vote down the infrastructure bill if Pelosi brought it to the floor before the reconciliation bill also advanced. If we don’t pass our agenda together — that’s infrastructure AND paid leave, child care, climate action, and more — then we’re leaving millions of working people behind,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the progressive caucus, tweeted last Monday.

The standoff came to a head on Thursday, as Pelosi prepared to move forward on the infrastructure vote while progressives promised to hold the line” to save the Build Back Better Act. 

At this crucial moment, the AFL-CIO’s chief lobbyist, William Samuel, sent a letter to members of the House. Rather than tell them to hold the line, Samuel wrote: On behalf of the AFL-CIO, I urge you to vote for the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), when it comes to the House floor this week.” The message directly undermined the two-track strategy of keeping the bills linked together.

Samuel added that the reconciliation package also needed to pass, but made clear that the infrastructure bill should pass first. We urge you to vote in favor of the IIJA and then quickly complete negotiations and pass the budget reconciliation bill,” he wrote (italics added).

At the same time, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten also sent a letter to House members, similarly urging them to pass the infrastructure bill as a critical first step,” adding that it must be followed by passage of the Build Back Better Act” (italics added).

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.), leader of the small group of conservative House Democrats trying to decouple the bills, immediately seized on Weingarten’s letter, tweeting a screenshot of it and writing: Thanks to @AFTunion! Let’s get bipartisan infrastructure bill done tonight!”

In the end, House progressives stood firm Thursday night and Pelosi was forced to postpone the infrastructure vote — thus keeping negotiations on the reconciliation bill going for the time being, much to the aggravation of conservative Democrats. 

But the AFL-CIO and AFT letters, both issued at a pivotal moment in this ongoing legislative fight, raise questions about some labor leaders’ commitment to passing the Build Back Better Agenda. It is especially surprising given that the AFL-CIO has made passing the PRO Act its top legislative priority, mobilizing thousands of union members to advocate for the labor law reform all year long.

While labor leaders continue to express support for Biden’s entire domestic agenda, some appear reluctant to discuss their position on the two-track legislative strategy. 

The AFL-CIO did not respond to emailed questions asking if it is confident that elements of the PRO Act would remain in the reconciliation package if the infrastructure bill were passed first. Three AFL-CIO affiliates that have been prominent in their advocacy for the PRO Act — the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, Communications Workers of America, and Association of Flight Attendants — also did not respond to requests to clarify their own legislative strategy (see update at the bottom of this article).

In response to Weingarten’s letter, which she said was sent on behalf of the 1.7 million members of the American Federation of Teachers,” a group of rank-and-file AFT members around the country are circulating a public letter urging her to retract her statement and demand that Congress pass both bills together at the same time.”

Passing the infrastructure bill first would give away all progressives’ leverage to pass the $3.5 trillion BBB Act,” the letter reads. As educators, we need our union to do everything possible to fight for this vision — not to undermine it.”

Susan Kang, a rank-and-file member of the AFT-affiliated Professional Staff Congress at the City University of New York and mother of two public school students, told In These Times she is disappointed” that Weingarten urged the immediate passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, particularly because the bill leaves out much of the Green New Deal.

I signed on to the letter [aimed at Weingarten] because I support the Green New Deal through the Build Back Better Act,” Kang explained. I support the Green New Deal for public schools, and as my kids crowd into outdated, unventilated classrooms in this second full school year of Covid, it is painfully obvious that we need massive federal money to fix our schools and make them more environmentally and socially more sustainable.”

In a statement to In These Times, Weingarten said, We want and need both pieces of the Biden agenda: Build Back Better and traditional infrastructure. AFT members have called, written, shouted and devoted time, money and effort to overcome GOP obstinacy and get it passed… Enacting the Biden agenda in its entirety is the best way to transform America.”

A spokesperson for UNITE HERE, another AFL-CIO affiliate, told In These Times, We want it all to go through, and call on Congress to work together to get it done.” The hospitality workers’ union led extensive get-out-the-vote efforts last year credited with helping Democrats retake control of both the White House and Senate.

There is too much at stake for workers and families to leave anything off the table,” UNITE HERE President D. Taylor said in a statement. We support any measure to achieve overdue reforms on these critical issues, including eliminating the filibuster.”

In urging the House of Representatives to ram through the infrastructure bill last Thursday rather than hold the line, AFL-CIO and AFT leaders were either genuinely confident that much of the Build Back Better Act — including key parts of labor law reform — would survive if the two bills were decoupled, or they were tacitly willing to sacrifice some or all of the reconciliation package to ensure passage of the infrastructure bill by an arbitrarily set deadline. 

Whichever it is, they won’t say.

Update: Since this article was published on October 4, the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE) — which is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO — has put out a statement supporting progressives in Congress who are refusing to buckle under to demands from corporate Democrats to water down the budget reconciliation bill.” UE’s national officers said, As anyone who has gone through negotiations knows, giving up your leverage before securing your goals is a losing strategy. We fully support those members of Congress who are using the only leverage they have — refusing to vote on the smaller infrastructure bill until a strong reconciliation bill is passed.”

Further, a spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) told In These Times, We have advocated for BOTH to pass together. Not one without the other.” The spokesperson pointed to a tweet last Friday from AFA president Sara Nelson, sometimes rumored to be a future contender for the AFL-CIO presidency, that One [bill] without the other is a decision to leave women behind.”

Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.

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