Press Call by Vice President Harris, Secretary Janet Yellen, and Senior Administration Officials on the Treasury Worker Task Force Report Release

Press Call by Vice President Harris, Secretary Janet Yellen, and Senior Administration Officials on the Treasury Worker Task Force Report Release

Via Teleconference
(August 28, 2023)

12:52 P.M. EDT

MODERATOR:  Thank you for joining today’s press call with Vice President Harris and Treasury Secretary Yellen regarding a report from the Treasury Department on the impact of labor unions on the economy.

The Vice President and Treasury Secretary will first deliver on-the-record remarks.  Following their remarks, we will conduct some question and answer with senior administration officials that will be on background.

As a reminder, the content of this call is under embargo until the call concludes.  By joining this call, you are agreeing to these terms. 

With that, I will now hand it to Vice President Harris.


Good afternoon, everyone.  It is good with — to be with you today to make an historic announcement: For the first time, our nation’s oldest and largest financial agency, the Treasury Department of the United States, is releasing a comprehensive analysis of the positive impact of unions on the middle class and on America’s economy. 

For generations, union workers have fought for and won higher wages, better benefits, and safer working conditions for millions of American workers. 

Union organizing and collective bargaining has made it possible for so many working families to buy a home, build a future, and retire with dignity. 

And the victories won by union workers benefit all workers.  Union organizing secured the five-day work week, paid sick leave, and safety standards. 

And we know union workers have been the backbone of America’s middle class.  And yet, for too long, the contributions of union workers have not been fully appreciated.

I am proud to serve as the head of the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment.  For the first year of our administration, with former Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, I worked with union leaders and partners across our administration to identify ways we could lower barriers to unionization.  

Last year, I presented President Biden with a list of more than 70 recommendations on how our administration could support union workers and expand the right to organize in the public and private sectors. 

Conducting this report was one of our recommendations.  And its findings are definitive: Union organizing creates significant economic benefits both for union workers and non-union workers.

On average, union workers earn up to 15 percent more in pay than non-union workers in the same occupations.  Union workers also receive retirement benefits, paid sick leave, life insurance, and discounts on childcare at a much higher rate.  And that matters. 

As a point of personal background: As many of you know, I was born in Oakland, California, and I grew up in a neighborhood of hard-working folks — nurses and firefighters and construction workers and teachers.  And I understood, then, from an early age that there is dignity in all work.  There is value in all work.  And I understood how important it is, then, that our leaders recognize and respect the dignity of that work. 

Because — think about it: If a worker gets sick, understanding the importance of what they give to society through their work, they should be able to take a day off when they’re sick without losing a paycheck.  And after a lifetime of hard work, every person should be able to live with dignity in retirement. 

As this report lays out, union workers also fight for equitable pay and against harassment and discrimination in the workplace.  By doing that, they reduce income inequality and build an economy where workers of every age and every background, every gender can succeed. 

Unions are also some of America’s best in terms of workforce training programs.  Union apprenticeships provide so many workers with a pathway toward the middle class.  Union apprenticeships are one of the primary reasons why union workers are some of the most highly skilled, highly experienced workers in our country.

And for so many workers, the union is more than just a job.  It is a family.  Over the course of my career, I have met with thousands of union workers — including, as Vice President, 
steelworkers in Nevada, plumbers and pipefitters in New Jersey, members of IBEW all across our country. 

And in these conversations, workers often tell me about what it means for them to be a part of a union.  They talk about community and solidarity and the shared belief that nobody should be made to fight alone.  And that is one of the great powers of a union.

And, again, when union workers stand in solidarity and fight for better wages, better benefits, and better working conditions, it benefits all workers. 

As this report demonstrates, when union workers bargain for higher pay, it increases pressure on non-union companies to raise pay as well to stay competitive in the labor market. 

And when union workers advocate for stronger workplace safety regulations, it makes all workplaces more safe as an extension.

This report reinforces what President Biden and I have always known to be true: Union workers make our middle class and our entire economy more strong.  And that is why we are leading proudly the most pro-union administration in America’s history. 

We have eliminated barriers to unionization in both the private and public sectors.  For example, we made it easier for union representatives to organize on federal property.  And we have strengthened the enforcement of retaliation protections for private-sector workers.

We have also made sure that our historic investment in rebuilding America’s infrastructure includes strong labor protections and creates good-paying union jobs.  

And earlier this month, standing with painters, electricians, and laborers in Philadelphia, I announced that we are giving more than one million workers on federal contracts a raise by updating Davis-Bacon standards. 

And all of this, I will say in conclusion, is part of a larger strategy. 

Far too long, our economy has not been working for working people.  Trickle-down economics benefitted big corporations and the wealthiest of Americans, but not really America’s workers. 

President Biden and I are building an economy where every person, not just the wealthy or well-connected, has the opportunity to thrive. 

And simply put: That is Bidenomics. 

And that is why we will continue to do everything in our power to support the working people of America.

I thank you, and now I’m going to turn it over to one of our nation’s greatest champions for working families and an essential partner to President Biden and me, the great Secretary Janet Yellen. 

SECRETARY YELLEN:  Thank you so much, Madam Vice President.  You’ve been an advocate for workers throughout your time in California and in this administration and especially through your leadership of the Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment. 

The Biden-Harris administration is focused on investing in our economic strength, and supporting American workers is at the heart of that effort. 

The President, Vice President, and I understand that jobs provide both a paycheck and a sense of dignity.  Since January 2021, we have seen an historically strong jobs recovery from the pandemic.  And we’re dedicated to creating a fairer, stronger labor market for the long haul.     

While we’ve emerged quickly for the — from the pandemic and there have been many positive trends over the past decades, there have also been persistent challenges.  Middle-class wages and household incomes have stagnated in recent decades.  Both renting and owning a home have become more expensive and so have education and healthcare. 

With today’s call, we’re releasing a Treasury Department report which presents the case that unions can play a role in addressing the challenges faced by the middle class.  This — this report is the administration’s latest action to strengthen the important role of labor unions in our economy, and it’s the Treasury Department’s first major effort to lay out the rationale for why we think this is so important. 

The Treasury Department’s report finds that unions raise the wages of their members by around 10 to 15 percent.  We also observe that union workers have greater access to critical fringe benefits, such as retirement benefits, medical benefits, and life insurance.  Unions also impact personnel practices, bringing about better workplace grievance systems and improved work- — workplace safety. 

I began my career as a labor economist, and I found in my own academic work that these nonmonetary factors are a key driver of job satisfaction, and they’re also critically important to workers’ well-being. 

Unionization also has spillover effects.  Competition means workers at nonunionized firms may see increased wages too.  Heightened workplace safety norms can pull up whole industries.  Benefits also spillover to workers’ families and communities. 

Importantly, our research also finds that unions fuel equality.  Today’s unions benefit all demographic groups.  Unions reduce race and gender wage gaps by encouraging explicit antidiscrimination measures and egalitarian work — wage practices. 

Working parents, including mothers, benefit from more scheduling predictability, which is more likely in unionized workplaces.  And Black men, who have the highest union membership rates of any demographic group, have also been particularly hit by the trends experienced by the middle class as a whole.  They, therefore, may be particularly poised to benefit from unionization. 

Well, taken together, these findings challenge arguments that unions hold back growth.  Unions could contribute to reversing the stark increase in inequality we’ve seen in recent decades, promoting economy-wide growth.  There are also many cases of unions improving productivity. 

President Biden’s executive order on worker organizing and empowerment called on each federal agency to take steps to improve opportunities for building worker power.  And I’m proud the Treasury Department is contributing to this effort, including through this report and through a report we released in March of 2022 on uneven bargaining power between employers and employees. 

Our ongoing implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act is also crucial. 

Earlier this month, I traveled to Las Vegas to tour the IBEW 357 training center, which is preparing workers for the Act’s clean energy jobs.  Going forward, I hope research like this will support continued efforts to build worker power and bring about much-needed gains for the middle class and for the economy as a whole. 

Thank you.  Let me stop there. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Madam Vice President and Madam Secretary.  We will now transition to the question-and-answer portion of this call.  As a reminder, this portion is on background, attributable to “senior administration official.” 

Those participating in the Q&A include [senior administration official] — pardon me — [senior administration official], [senior administration official], [senior administration official], and [senior administration official].  

Q    Hi, can you hear me?

MODERATOR:  We can hear you loud and —

Q    Can you —

MODERATOR:  — clear.  Please go ahead. 

Q    Okay.  Thank you for doing this call.  A couple of questions.  The report notes that the rate of private sector unionization and how that has remained low for many years now.  I was wondering if folks can talk about why that is, especially with a rebound in worker petitions to form unions.  And — and despite that, why hasn’t union membership in the private sector gone up?

And then I also have another question on a different topic.  President Biden on Friday said he was concerned about the UAW strike in particular.  And I was wondering if — if the White House can give us an update on where the UAW negotiations stand and the role Gene and other White House officials are playing here?  Thank you. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICIAL:  Hi, this is [senior administration official].  I’ll take the first question and then pass to my colleagues for the second. 

So, the question about why the membership rate has gone down and then — and then stayed low — I mean, we’re certainly hopeful that with the increased rates of petitions, that — that we’ll start seeing an uptake in the membership rates going forward.  But the past two for — from — I guess, petitions are only one step in — in the whole path of increasing the union- — unionization — the union membership rates.

Over — overall, over this kind of the — the whole trend that led to a decrease in union membership rates, we attribute and researchers attribute to globalization, automation, and — and then a deterioration of some of the legal support.  I mean, even starting with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act that — that led to some of the weakened worker — worker bargaining power. 

But with the — the acts of this administration, the support for unionization by both the administration and also increased support by public — the public, we do expect or hope that we can see some increases in — in the years to come.  Thank you. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICIAL:  And I would also add to that — to that first question a couple of things.  One, folks may have seen, earlier this year, we announced that nearly 80,000 federal government employees had joined a union between September ‘21 and September ‘22.  So, that’s sort of a tangible increase. 

And the second thing is: I would point to something that the Vice President says, that, you know, we’re sort of in a new era of organizing.  And there is momentum behind this movement.  And so, as [senior administrative official] pointed out, obviously, you have the increase in petitions, and then there’s the work of achieving a first contract.

But you also see the — the really incredibly high support for unions and the number of people who say when asked that they would join — join a union if given the opportunity.  And of course, that’s one of the reasons for the task force and for the administration’s work, is to remove those barriers to organizing so that the people who say that they would like to join a union or exercise their labor rights actually have the — the real — the real option of doing so where they may not have in the past. 

[Senior administration official]?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And to your second question — thanks, [senior administration official].  This is [senior administration official].  As the President said on Friday and has reiterated for weeks, that he supports a just transition.  That means, you know, auto workers are central to that, that means the right to organize is central to that because, as has been reiterated on this call by the Vice President and others, he believes that collective bargaining works — right? — and that it’s important for workers to get the positive outcomes that they deserve.  And as the report lays out, it’s good for the economy overall, reducing inequality, et cetera.

And so, I think that that’s an important thing to take away from what the President has been saying for a week now as it — as it relates to the UAW, the negotiations, and the EV transition.

The White House continues to, you know, stay abreast of the negotiations — that is Gene Sperling’s role — and continue to encourage the parties to come to an agreement and stay at the table.
Q    Good morning.  My name is Stephen Cooper.  I’m with Law360.  I have two tax-related questions.  The first is: What’s been the impact of removing the tax deductibility for union dues?  It was removed as part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which passed under former President Trump.  So, what’s been the impact of that on union membership growth, worker benefits, economic inequality, that sort of stuff?

And second, it mentioned in the report that the Treasury Department is exploring changes to the tax code to discourage the anti-union campaigning, encouraging for neutrality.  Can you give me some examples of what you guys are looking at in the Treasury Department as it relates to that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  This is [senior administration official].  So, on your — on your first quest- — I’m not — I’m not sure I’ll — on your first question about the impact of — of tax deductibility of union dues on union membership, I don’t know of any specific research that addresses that question, so I’m not sure I’ll have a satisfactory answer on this call.  But — but it’s, you know, useful to raise that that tax policy may have ha- — may have an effect on certain types of union decisions.  I — but I do — I do not know of any research that — that addresses that well.

I didn’t quite hear your second question.  I’m sorry.  Could you repeat?

Q    Treasury Department is exploring tax code changes to stop anti-union campaigning, and I’m wondering what — can you talk about what things the Treasury is looking at in the tax code in this area?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’m sorry, that — that’s (inaudible) this report, so we don’t have any direct comments on that question.  Thank you for it.

Q    Hi there.  This is Toby Burns from The Hill.  I’m just wondering, you know, what’s — what’s the message to management right now?  I mean, you know, sort of, unions and management, you know, tend not to agree with each other.  They tend to be on, you know, sort of, opposite sides of the table, literally.  So, what are you — and we have several high-profile labor activities across the country happening right now.  Do you have a message for, you know, the corporate side — both the management side and also the investment side? 

You know, if we see things like defined benefit programs come back, which is one of the UAW demands for their bargaining process, you know, this will really change some potential structural features of the economy.  So, yeah, just what’s the — what’s the message now to management?  What’s the message to the investment side of things?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  This is [senior administration official].  So, there is really strong — which we review in the paper — there’s strong empirical evidence that unions and unionization can improve the productivity of workers by improving their working environments and also by giving experienced workers more of an input into workplace procedures — cost effective and — and better designed workplace procedures.

So, employers or management can take advantage of this union voice to hear what would improve job satisfaction and what would improve the well-being for their workers that would lead their workers to be more productive, leading to a win-win for workplaces.  And they can choose to steer negotiations in directions that would lead their workers to be more productive.  I’ll stop there.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And I’ll also add, you know, if you look at the President’s statement from the 14th talking about how, you know, the — anything that — or that both parties should come to the table to negotiate a fair outcome for everyone.  That’s what collective bargaining is about.  The administration believes in collective bargaining.  And I think that the message is the same.

Q    Hi, this is Ian — (clears throat) — excuse me.  Hi, this is Ian Kullgren from Bloomberg.  Thanks so much for having this call.  My first question is about the UAW negotiations and the Inflation Reduction Act.  The UAW has pointedly not endorsed the President for reelection, largely because while there were benefits for domestically-produced EVs in the Inflation Reduction Act, it didn’t extend to — to union-produced cars specifically. 

So, did the Inflation Reduction Act, in retrospect, fall short in that aspect?

And second, I was wondering whether the White House endorses the NLRB’s recent decision in the Cemex case, which, for background, significantly expanded the situations in which an employer can bargain with a union on the basis of card check rather than a formal NLRB election?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So, on the first piece, as you pointed out, the — (audio drops) — Reduction Act has, you know, spurred a lot of manufacturing jobs.  In fact, the head of US Steel called the IRA the “Manufacturing Renaissance Act.”  And they’re not a company that’s normally, you know, positive on — on our agenda. 

And so, there’s been a lot of important investment manufacturing.  They — and the administration is doing everything we can to incentivize investments that create new jobs, but also making it clear as we put out those funding opportunities and — through the bully pulpit — bull pi- — bully — bull — pulpit — excuse me — that we expect these grantees to afford a free and fair choice to form and join a union, and that they are — we are creating opportunities for workers to organize and in new facilities.  Right?  Often in new facilities where, you know, the workforce that would organize it not — does not yet exist. 

And so, this President continues to be incredibly supportive of the — the right to organize, of unions.  And you can see some of those wins to date.  We’ve seen this with, you know, IBEW members organizing with electric vehicle charging stations.  You know, we’ve seen some progress made on the UAW front, including both the Ultium organizing victory and very recently, as of last week, they were able to negotiate a pay raise between them.

You know, Ford has recognized the UAW card check for its Michigan battery plant.  There have been some wins in the South as well, including, you know, the Blue Bird Bus manufacturing facility with the Steelworkers. 

And that is what our goal is, and that is what the President’s goal is, which is to, you know, support the creation of new manufacturing jobs, of quality jobs, and the right for workers to organize so that they contin- — continue to win these victories.
Q    Yeah, hi.  It’s Michael Kanell from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  I wonder in this report whether you’ve made any kind of comparison between the economic impact of unions in places that have a relatively high union membership and those that have a much lower union membership.  Obviously, I’m calling from — from Georgia, a state which has a notoriously low union membership for a variety of reasons.  And I’m wondering if — if you have made that kind of comparison to show whether there’s any kind of a correlation there as membership shrinks percentage wise, if there’s also a corollary decrease in the benefits.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hi.  So, we don’t have a specific section in the report that does these comparisons, but a lot of the analyses where we draw — draw results and evidence from use the fact that there’s a lot of geographic differences in unionization rates in order to do their empirical analysis.  So, it is certainly the case that the fact that there’s quite a bit of geographic differences across states in the U.S. is embedded in the results that would — that — that we’re drawing upon.  And we talk about that in a little bit more detail — a little bit of detail in Section 7.1 on — on the inequality results, in particular. 

And then the one other thing I’ll say is that we also look — draw some of our results from other countries that, of course, have very different unionization rates and also very different labor market structures.  And we — because they have higher union — some — some countries have higher unionization rates, they have work on — on things such as how much unions close racial and gender wage gaps. 

And we draw upon that research to provide some evidence, but acknowledge that they have very different labor market institutions in those countries.
Q    Hi.  Thanks.  You know, lately, we’ve seen several pretty big, you know, wage gains — like UPS is one example.  But at the same time, across the economy as a whole, the private-sector wages have kind of outpaced wage growth for union wages in the last two or three years.  Do you expect that to change?  Do you think union wages will kind of start to grow faster than the private sector as a whole?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’ll just say, I don’t want to — we’re — we don’t want to put ourselves in the position of forecasting in this report or this call.  But all, you know, wage growth of both union and non-union workers we view as a good thing, especially for the middle class, which we focused on in this report. 

The other thing I want to draw attention to in this report is — is there’s a lot of evidence — and we emphasize this evidence — that there’s spillovers from union — union activity to non-union workplaces and non-union workers.  So, seeing some of the — the results of strengthening collective bargaining in the country will be seen in non-union workplaces, as well as the union workplaces, and we view that as a positive thing.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I’d also point out — this is [senior administration official] — that, as the Vice President mentioned at the top of the call, she and the Acting Secretary, Julie Su, of Labor just announced, you know, the first update in the Davis-Bacon regulations in over 40 years on — for construction work — federally funded construction work. 

So, there’s certainly — there’s certainly opportunities that we see for — for what you’re describing, but I agree with [senior administration official] that we don’t want to forecast anything.  But I think that it’s been historically true, as I think both our principals talked about, that when union wages go up, other wages go up too.  So, I think there’s — I think — I would just point to that.

Q    Hi.  What room do other agencies not mentioned in this report have in — like, for instance, the EEOC or OSHA — have in terms of promoting workers’ power through new rulemaking?  Or in other words, what kind of rulemaking can we expect from the agencies in the future if the President were to be re-elected in 2024?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, this is — this is [senior administration official].  I will say that — Fatima, if you’ve seen the task force report the Vice President mentioned she delivered to the President, in the over 70 recommendations, agencies across the administration contributed actions.  And so, you’ll see — for example, with the Department of Labor, they — they talked about expanding “know your rights” campaigns to reach workers who want to exercise their labor rights but don’t know how or are not able to, or increasing protections against retaliation in the workplace, which we’ve seen quite a bit of recently.

We’ve seen agencies like the Department of the Interior and the Department of Defense make it easier for union organizers to access federal property. 

And so I think that one of the things that the task force — the goal of the task force and of the EO that the President signed to create it was to look at all of the different levers that exists within the executive branch, all the power of a — powers and the practices to find out if — you know, to ask the question: If we are to be the most pro-union administration in history, what are the ways that we can use existing powers and practices to remove barriers to organizing? 

So, I’ll leave it to others to preview the future, but I think that you will — as you see from the task force report, there is — there’s been an extensive effort so far to look across the executive branch to find ways to increase access to union organizing and collective bargaining. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  And one that I just mention is — this is [senior administration official] — the President also took executive action to promote project labor agreements for large-scale federal construction projects.  So, like [senior administration official] pointed out earlier, the recent regulation around prevailing wages, the — this action will also promote comp- — bargaining and engagement with labor. 

So, you know, we can have the Department of Labor get back to you on your specific question, but we’re — through the task force and other executive actions, we’re doing all that we can to ensure that — that unions are — that workers are empowered and have the option to join and form a union.

MODERATOR:  And our apologies to those who we were not able to get to due to time constraints.  If you did not get your question answered, please reach out to your contacts at the Treasury, the White House, or the Office of the Vice President. 

I’ll now turn it back over to your speakers.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  We’re all set.  Thanks so much, everyone.

1:28 P.M. EDT

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