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How the White House wants to expand unions — starting with federal workers

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The country's largest employer — the federal government — is looking to make it easier for its employees and contract workers to join a union. A White House task force announced 70 recommendations Monday to promote federal worker organizing and collective bargaining, which the Biden administration hopes can be a model for employees working for private companies.

Union membership has been on the decline for decades. Last year, the number of workers in unions continued its drop to 14 million, or 10.3%, according to the Labor Department. That's down more than 240,000 workers from the year before. In 1983, more than 20% of workers were union members.

The latest Labor Department data shows in 2021, nonunion workers earned 83% of the weekly median earnings of workers who were union members. 

According to the report, there are more than 300,000 federal workers from multiple agencies who are eligible to be represented by a union but are not.

"The federal government should be a model employer that facilitates its own employees joining or organizing a union, if that is what employees choose to do," the report states.

The Biden administration believes increasing worker organizing and empowerment is critical to growing the middle class and building a workers-first economy, according to a White House official, noting President Biden frequently says "unions built the middle class."

The task force's report, which stems from an executive order signed by Mr. Biden last April, called for the Labor Department, Defense Department, Small Business Administration and Department of Health and Human Services to eliminate barriers to union organizers being able to talk with employees on federal property about the benefits of organizing – including both federal employees and federal contractor private employees, and a dozen agencies will establish preferences and requirements for federal grants that promote union jobs. Other recommendations include efforts for several agencies and offices to help ensure federal contract money is not spent on anti-union campaigns and that consultants hired by federal contractors to help them oppose union organizing are publicly disclosed. 

The task force acknowledged its recommendations are not a replacement for Congress to change existing labor laws. Legislation promoted by the White House that would expand protections for worker's rights to organize passed nearly along party lines in the House last March, but is stalled in the Senate, where it would need 60 votes to pass.

The task force recommendations are just the latest steps in recent weeks to expand union activity and workers' rights to organize. 

Mr. Biden signed an executive order Friday aimed at boosting union labor for federal projects, including ones that are part of the bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threw her support Thursday behind congressional staffers unionizing, noting the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee just unionized, which she supported.

One day later, the Congressional Workers Union, a volunteer group of staffers, announced its drive to unionize congressional offices and committees. Other Democratic lawmakers from around the country also signaled support for the move. 

Congressman Andy Levin of Michigan tweeted he would introduce a resolution to extend the right to bargain for House staff this week.

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