The AFL-CIO serves as the parent organization to our state teacher’s union, NYSUT. In a recent interview, New York State AFL-CIO President, Mario Cilento, gave his thoughts on what a Biden presidency could mean for unions and for public education in New York State. He focused on facts using statements made from the Biden campaign as well as policies the President-elect has supported during his political career.
First, Cilento commented that, “the best thing that I can say about where we are now in the history of this country is that Joe Biden exudes empathy and compassion.” “That empathy and that compassion for others is exactly what we need right now in this country.” “Especially in a time when we are as divided as we are as a nation… if those who didn’t vote for him, in my opinion, if they’re willing to give him a chance to explain himself, to show himself, and see that he means what he says, then I think that’ll go a long way toward healing this country.”
Cilento described President-Elect Biden as someone who has been a long-time friend to labor. Cilento referenced a plan on Biden’s campaign platform called the Biden Plan for Strengthening Worker Organizing, Collective Bargaining and Unions. The full details of this plan can be found on the Biden campaign website.
“Very few politicians call for plans to strengthen unions,” Cilento said. “They’ll say we support unions… but, he [Biden] actually has a plan that talked to the issue of strengthening unions.” Parts of the Biden plan call for checks on the abuse of corporate power over labor, incentivizing unionization and collective bargaining and holding corporate executives accountable for labor law violations.
Hopefully, we can all get behind any proposals made by President-elect Biden that are in line with his stated plans for strengthening unions. We may also be able to find common ground when it comes to President-elect Biden’s stance on public education.
In his acceptance speech as President-elect, Joe Biden became one of the first politicians on a national stage of this magnitude to acknowledge teachers and the important role they play in our country.
Speaking about the First Lady-elect, Dr. Jill Biden, Joe Biden said, “Jill’s a mom, a military mom and educator. She’s dedicated her life to education. But teaching isn’t just what she does, it’s who she is.” “For American educators, this is a great day for you all,” said Biden. “You’re going to have one of your own in the White House.”
From as far back as the summer of 2019, President-Elect Biden made clear that, if elected, he would look to give educators a greater stake in decisions being made about public education. At a National Education Association forum for presidential candidates held in Houston in back July of 2019, Biden said, “"First thing, as president of United States -- not a joke -- first thing I will do is make sure that the secretary of education is not Betsy DeVos, it is a teacher."
Without question, the current Secretary of Education has come under fire over the years for endorsing policies that seemed more aligned with corporate interests than those of the true stakeholders in public education; the teachers, parents and children. Having someone with classroom experience in charge of our national public education policy promises to be a step in the right direction for public education. Recent reports have included Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Lily Eskelsen García, former president of the National Education Association, as potential candidates to serve as Secretary of Education. Both of these ladies not only have classroom experience, but experience with the labor movement as well.
While policy statements and campaign promises give some sense of what President-Elect Biden might be willing to do, specific policies and legislation will be needed to move the ball forward and improve things for unions and for public education and earn the support of voters of red and blue candidates.
One such legislation that all unionists can hopefully get behind is called the PRO Act. PRO is an acronym for protecting the right to organize. This legislation was passed in the House of Representatives in February of 2020. It is considered by many to be one of the most significant bills to strength the rights of workers to organize in over 80 years.
The PRO Act would give the National Labor Relations Board the power to fine companies up to $50,000 if the companies significantly restrict workers from organizing or forming unions. It would also award workers’ compensation for the damages workers might experience when they are retaliated against for attempting to organize and unionize.
The PRO Act would also allow more people currently classified as contractors to be given the status of employees for the purposes of union organizing, potentially paving the way for gig workers at companies like Lyft, Uber and DoorDash to organize among themselves or join existing unions. The bill would also weaken so-called right-to-work laws that allow employees to be exempt from paying fees to the unions that represent them.
In speaking about the PRO Act, Mario Cilento commented that the legislation, “protects the right to strike, it gives workers more leverage by expanding the ability to strike and makes organizing workers into a union a more fair process.” “It would bar employers from making employees attend these captive audience meetings which are basically designed to convince workers to vote against the union.”
There is no doubt that we live in a divided nation and those divisions can be found in all walks of life, including within some labor unions. But no matter what the differences, there can always be points of mutual consent when it comes to the greater good of a organizations like unions and institutions like our public schools. Whether it was the fight to prevent a Constitutional Convention and protect pensions and other hard fought union benefits, or the movement to end high stakes testing that hinders are ability to teach our students most effectively, people who vote for “red” and “blue” candidates have been able to come together and work together when our common interests are at stake. Hopefully, we can do, as AFL-CIO President, Mario Cilento, suggested in his interview, give the incoming administration a chance, and give our unified support to those policies that help our union and our schools.