It’s apparently “infrastructure week” in Washington once more — except this time for real. President Biden has proposed a roughly $2.8 trillion infrastructure bill, which is really more of a grab bag of various Democratic Party priorities. There is a lot of infrastructure spending in there, but there is also a massive elder care program, and critically, the Protecting the Right to Organize (or PRO) Act, which would make it much easier to organize a union. As usual for Biden’s domestic agenda, the design is a bit of a mess, but the priorities are generally good.
Republicans, of course, have been moaning nonstop for months about how Democrats are plowing them over by refusing to listen to their ideas or negotiate in a bipartisan fashion. In reality, Democrats have been disturbingly willing to cater to Republican preferences, and some key Democratic swing votes in the Senate are still not behind the PRO Act. Measures like these are the bare minimum of what the party needs to be able to compete in future elections, but the people who will decide whether they pass are still dithering.
Let me outline how a rational political party in the Democrats’ position would behave. They currently have full control of the presidency and the legislature, but just barely — a margin of just a handful of seats in the House, and the smallest possible margin in the Senate. They are also facing an existential political threat: American institutions are systematically biased against Democrats, requiring the party to win substantial majorities to even have a chance at national power. Worse, they face an opposition party that is plotting in plain sight to win the House by cheating the redistricting process this year and laying the groundwork to steal the presidential election outright in 2024. A party whose sitting president tried to overthrow the government by force on January 6 will do anything.
Biden’s infrastructure bill would help with Democrats’ plight. Juicing the economy to create jobs building stuff will mean a better political environment in the 2022 and 2024 elections, and raising taxes on the rich and corporations that offshore jobs and profits actually makes it more popular. Indeed, if anything the bill is too small to accomplish its goals on climate.
More importantly, the PRO Act would change the fundamental structure of American politics. The anachronistic and toothless structure of the existing National Labor Relations Act makes it extremely difficult to organize a union, as we saw in the failed drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The process takes forever, constantly gets fouled up in legal red tape, and employers have far too much ability to interfere with organizing efforts — often illegally, because the National Labor Relations Board (which oversees union legal matters) has few ways to discipline scofflaw bosses. By making it dramatically easier to organize a union, and for unions to support each other politically, we would likely see a huge surge in labor organizing — and most of that would redound to the benefit of Democrats.
Organized labor used to be the beating heart of Democratic politics, both tactically and morally. Workers would vote for Democrats like Senator Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.), those leaders would use their influence in office to help workers, and then empowered unions would use their strength to back Democrats. It was a good political bargain not only because workers are a very large group of potential voters and unions have money they can spend on politics, but also because union membership is an inherent lesson about the benefits of solidarity and collective action — acting for the left somewhat like evangelical churches do on the right.
But the Democrats were never a full-fledged labor party, and starting in the 1970s they betrayed their union constituents. They eventually participated eagerly in the neoliberal revolution, and the resulting unfair trade deals, deregulation, tax cuts, recessions, and so forth decimated union membership. This was a political disaster for Democrats — former party strongholds like West Virginia and Wisconsin have become conservative or even reactionary in part because their unions are a shadow of their former strength.
So passing the infrastructure bill, and reversing some of the damage of neoliberalism, is a matter of basic political self-preservation. To be fair, even many establishment Democrats seem to see the logic here. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised that the PRO Act will get a floor vote if it can get 50 co-sponsors, and there are just three holdouts among the Democratic caucus: Sens. Mark Kelly and Krysten Sinema of Arizona, and Mark Warner of Virginia. Their motivation is probably some combination of the typical centrist mindset where trying to avoid doing anything is somehow “responsible,” and outright corruption — the last factor predominating in the case of Warner, who represents a deep blue state yet remains one of the worst corporate sellouts in the party. Corporate America hates unions with the fire of a thousand suns, and both campaign contributions and cushy no-show “consulting” jobs will not be forthcoming for Democrats who won’t toe the oligarch line.
Worse, it’s not clear that the PRO Act could be included in a reconciliation bill, because it doesn’t directly affect the budget — meaning it may not be able to pass, even as part of a larger infrastructure package, unless the Senate filibuster is reformed or abolished. Sen. Joe Manchin recently contradicted himself and proclaimed that he would not support any reforms of the filibuster whatsoever, nor would he support making D.C. a state through congressional action so Democrats can get two more senators. If he holds to that view, Democrats can probably kiss their majorities goodbye, maybe forever.
It is apparently only a handful of people on the Democrats’ right wing standing in the way of progress here (though their obstruction may be convenient for other potential sellouts who support labor rights only if they will not pass). But the party as a whole is going to be judged on what it manages to get through Congress, and so far there seems to be little effort outside of organized labor itself or democratic socialist groups to pressure Warner, Manchin, and the others to see sense. If President Biden and the rest of the Democratic Party can’t find some way to get their party to act in its own self-interest, they will be instructing the American people that in terms of positive achievement, there isn’t much point to voting for them.