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The American Left has abandoned unions Organised workers pose too much of a threat

The excitement over unions isn't translating to change. (KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images)

The excitement over unions isn't translating to change. (KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images)


March 19, 2024   7 mins

People fret about how high the divorce rate has become; it’s at a 60-year low. People talk about how the United States has lost its status as an educational powerhouse; but we’ve done terribly for as long as there has been rigorous international comparisons. Even though we live in a world of unlimited information, many people believe things that just aren’t true. I bring this up as a form of confession: when it comes to the labour movement in the United States I do the same — possibly for self-defensive reasons.

In day-to-day life, I unthinkingly conceive of our current era as one of union ascendancy. The rise of the Bernie Sanders Democrat helped push labour back to the forefront of Left-of-centre debate: where Clintonite neoliberals found unions distasteful, today’s young liberals are reflexively pro-labour. Joe Biden’s National Labor Review Board, easily the most influential body for such issues in the United States, is the most union-friendly iteration in generations. And there have been a number of high-profile battles in recent years — everywhere from Amazon warehouses to Starbucks coffee shops. Actors’ and screenwriters’ unions held long and more-or-less successful strikes last year. In short, there is more coverage of and excitement about union issues right now than at any other point in my adult life.

And yet, Reuters tells us, last year, the American unionisation rate fell slightly, to a record low of 10%. In the metric that matters, unions are stagnant or declining. That contradiction begs a question: why has the renewed abstract interest in labour movements not coincided with an increase in actually-existing workers joining actually-existing unions?

Americans are interested in unions because we’ve spent decades in a system with no counterweight to the influence of capital. After a half-century of spiralling inequality, repetitive scandals in our banking and finance sector, and stagnation in salaries for ordinary workers, there has been a broad embrace of further-Left politics. But the American conservative movement has fought vociferously for over a century to disempower labour — and they’re aided in this fight by the corporations and plutocrats that would be hurt by more and more powerful unions. The laws are bent against organising.

For generations, Republicans have been the labour movement’s persistent, passionate foe, while Democrats have been only tentatively committed to it. It seems strange that the institutions of the American Left haven’t done more to revitalise unions, given how much they empower workers. (If you’d like a prominent example, last year UPS described the demands of the Teamsters Union that represents its workers as extortionate for months — then folded once an actual work stoppage drew near.) But then again, corporations have almost as much influence in the Democratic party as they do with the Republicans.

Hamilton Nolan, a heart-on-his-sleeve labour leftist who has done as much as any journalist of his generation to centre unions, is inspired by the maddening reality that, even though labour organising is one of the most consistently potent forms of Left-wing power, it is constantly marginalised by the Democrats and establishment liberals. His recent book, The Hammer, laments years of bad decisions by union management, before issuing a call to action, concerning how the movement could grow. It’s the argument of a pessimist’s intellect and an optimist’s soul. Which is pretty much the only combination that makes sense if you are, like Nolan and myself, a supporter of America’s unions.

Organising is harder than it used to be. One of the virtues of The Hammer is it reminds us how much of it now takes place in worksites that look nothing like a car assembly plant. The advantages of the factory were multiple for unions: these were centralised workplaces with significant employee populations, and often the largest and most important employer for a local community. The actual work was frequently dangerous and physically demanding. Those conditions lent themselves to workers coming together to demand better pay and conditions.

Nolan points out that the effectiveness of the culinary unions in Nevada, one of the major recent labour success stories, is down to similar reasons:

“Just as the United Mine Workers, the United Steelworkers, and the United Auto Workers grew out of factory towns where workers chafed under the iron hand of all-powerful companies, so, too, has the Culinary Union’s growth been driven by a clear-eyed understanding that they were the only thing standing between thousands of workers and a life of absolute domination by casino companies.”

But most modern workplaces are not like factories. Workforces tend to be atomised into various departments and offices, and their interactions are often limited and filtered through electronic mediums. The most dangerous threat to such workers is often a papercut. It’s harder to muster the motivation to organise.

But the union movement can’t afford to stand around being nostalgic; the old model of factory unions, though still in place in a few industries, can’t be the model. It’s common for people to scoff at the idea of having unions in workplaces like Starbucks or, for that matter, Gawker Media, where I first encountered Nolan’s work. But unions must go where the jobs are and, most of all, where the employees who want to be organised are.

I frequently thought of two different sets of workers as I read The Hammer: home health aides — or carers — and people like me.

You often see home health aides named as perhaps the fastest-growing profession in the United States. America is a rapidly-greying country, with a vast population of ageing Baby Boomers reaching their senescence; we’re also a society where the average number of children per family has significantly declined and where multigenerational living has become uncommon. This is a recipe for a lot of senior citizens who need help getting around their homes, preparing meals, taking their medicines. Hence the rise of the home health aide, people who are often paid by Medicare or various government assistance programs — and paid poorly, at around $10/hour. Benefits are often minimal, and these carers are afforded little social status. This is a group that could definitely benefit from union representation, and unions would be very happy to increase their ranks with such a large and growing worker base.

And yet, organising this group is difficult, despite efforts by The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the Home Healthcare Workers of America (HHWA). These workers rarely or ever congregate in a central place of employment; the vast majority of their working hours are spent in the homes of their clients. So, there’s little opportunity for the organic back-and-forth that has been so crucial to unionising workplaces in the past. The lack of a site of organising means it’s hard for union organisers to introduce themselves to employees — to make the case for unionising, or explain where dues go. And given its low-paying nature, the profession is fairly transient, with many people drifting into and out of these jobs.

Though dogged efforts to organise fast food workers continue, there, too, the lack of stability in the workforce poses problems for unions: employees who stay on the job for a matter of months, or who frequently leave and return to employment, are less likely to be enthusiastic union members. They have less natural investment in the working experience.

And then there are people like me. Digital media has been a rare bright spot in the labour movement, with a broad expansion of workplace organising — although the industry has been subject to such violent contraction that it’s hard to feel good about that growth. More and more of my peers are turning to a crowdsourced model of funding, with subscription-based newsletters or similar; Nolan himself derives some of his income this way. Though I freelance for publications such as this one and am steadily writing books, the bulk of my income stems from a paid newsletter. I would like to be part of a union, as I was when in the American Federation of Teachers. But it really wouldn’t make much sense. I don’t control the means of my production — Substack does, thanks to owning its servers — but I also have no specific employer. I’m not living on the rents derived from ownership, but I also have no management with which I can negotiate. It’s hard to imagine how I could ever belong to a union in this capacity, and yet the fact remains that I work, and that corporations capture the value I create, resulting in my exploitation. If the labour movement can’t incorporate independent contractors like me — somehow, some way — it’s losing out on a large and growing slice of the workforce. But incorporate us how?

“It’s hard to imagine how I could ever belong to a union, and yet the fact remains that I work, and that corporations capture the value I create.”

Nolan offers no easy answers. Indeed, his book catalogues mistake after mistake made by the labour movement. This willingness to engage directly and unapologetically with a seemingly endless stream of self-inflicted wounds is one of the book’s central strengths — a sign that labour is more than a symbol for Nolan and instead a living, breathing engine of potential progress. And yet, The Hammer’s bifurcated status, as both an invocation of labour’s potential and an indictment of its present reality, made the book frequently feel at war with itself. It’s too worshipful towards what labour might be to function as a screed, and too repetitively pessimistic to serve as a rousing call to action. And that’s fine! It doesn’t have to be either. But when I’ve recommended the book to friends, I’ve struggled to tell them exactly what it is. Every statement of hope seems offset by a discouraging detail.

But if the book sometimes seems unsure of its own level of optimism, the state of Nolan’s heart is clear. He has said, in describing the genesis of the book: “I could see, as clear as day, how unions could be the singular tool that could solve the inequality crisis gripping America — the big, deep problem that was eroding the foundations of our society, the underlying cause of a lot of other problems.” If this is an exaggeration, it’s barely one; the ability to bring work to a halt still represents just as much of a threat to plutocratic rule as it always did. Labour is never far from the heart of Left-wing politics, can never be; the Left is labour. For however unfashionable Marxism may be now, the fact that the most important Left-wing movement of all time placed the relationship between workers and management at the heart of political struggle holds a lesson for the rest of us.

And at the same time, the situation frequently does seem hopeless. Politicians from one party occasionally invoke unions as a feel-good afterthought; those from the other party relentlessly work to make labour organising impossible. Many Americans still reflexively see unions as synonymous with worker greed and laziness, after being force-fed a steady drip of Reaganite propaganda. And as in all things in 21st-century life, the workplace seems destined to remain under the tight grip of an unaccountable financial elite that government won’t confront and certainly can’t control.

Ultimately, The Hammer left me grasping at the same platitudes that I always grasp at when it comes to the labour movement — pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will; workers of the world, unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains. The potential for a muscular American union movement, a lever of power in a world where workers have precious little, will never be erased. But only we can take advantage of such power, and it’s hard not to conclude that we simply don’t want to.

I know Nolan wants to believe that American unions can rise again, but I’m not sure he actually believes that American unions can rise again. I know how he feels. I’m living in the space between realism and idealism, between the potential and the actual, and it seems that so is he. The urge for workers to organise in some capacity to secure better working conditions will never leave us, and as long as that is true there is hope for unions. But precisely because of the heights reached in the heyday of American labour, now literally a century ago, the forces of reaction are that much more committed to defeating the threat of organised workers. And yet still, I can’t deny: there is power in a union.


Freddie deBoer is a writer and academic. His newsletter can be found at freddiedeboer.substack.com.


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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
4 months ago

Interesting essay for sure, but like the union movement itself, it contains some spectacular contradictions. IDK how the author can think he’s a worker. As a substack writer, he is a small, independent, self employed business owner. I totally agree that we need more private-sector unions, and these could play a big role reducing the growing income gap. On the other hand, public-sector unions have become a parasitic monster feeding off the hard work of taxpayers. What’s the latest – more than 1,000 employees at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) are threatening to strike after they were told to return to the office for two days a week. More private, less public please.

T Bone
T Bone
4 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

But private union membership percentages are dependent on State laws mandating that all closed shop workers pay Union fees. So in the US, everywhere you have “Right to work laws” you have lower Union membership because workers can’t be COMPELLED to pay dues.

Unions argue that Right-to-work Laws are “Union-Busting” and encourage “free riders” because the Union has to negotiate on behalf of everyone in the shop under federal law. But this is only true if the Union has Exclusive Bargaining Rights in the shop. If the Union signs a Members-Only contract than the Free-Rider problem is eliminated…but so is the Monopoly.

In a Members-Only Contract, the Union needs to do a really good job if it wants to keep the best employees. If not, those employees can just negotiate on their own and that erodes the Union’s bargaining power. So knowing that, they tend to prefer the Exclusive Bargaining Rights even in Right-To-Work States where workers don’t have to pay dues to get collectively represented.

So does Right-To-Work suppress “Median Wages.” Well yes, there’s no question that Private Sector Unions negotiate higher wages, especially if we don’t adjust for inflation. But we can’t ignore that the cost of living is much lower in Right-To-Work States without Labor Monopolies. These States also tend to have lower unemployment and experience less disruptive work stoppages caused by strikes for COLA increases to keep up with inflationary business environments.

These states are also inherently less regulatory and political because Labor is not helping politicians craft all the laws to the advantage of specific industries. In Big Labor States the climate is hyper-political and favoritism is everywhere due to the regulatory bureacracy.

R Wright
R Wright
4 months ago

As ever from the left two things stick out. First is saying with three words what a writer could say in one. Secondly, and most importantly, is the usual elephant in the room being ignored. What good is your organising if the ‘bosses’ are savaging your wages by bringing in millions of foreigners.

Skink
Skink
4 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

The American left has a bigger problem: it has abandoned common sense.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
4 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Indeed, but it isn’t just immigration. It’s all globalization that has to be scrapped. It’s the free flow of capital, goods, and people that must end for the economic sovereignty of national governments elected by the people to be restored. I think we’re already heading in that direction overall. Dedollarization, the BRICS alliance, the CHIPS act, the China tariffs, populist movements in Europe and the concessions they’re already being granted by Brussels, and so on. The immigration fight is just one way that the international financial class is trying to hold the doors open as long as they can. I salute the Texas governor for turning a negative into a positive by barricading the border himself and daring Biden to stop him and bussing millions of migrants to darken the doorsteps of the liberal strongholds who love immigration as long as it’s someone else’s problem. Truly this man is playing chess while most everybody else is playing checkers, or maybe tiddlywinks if we’re being honest. Abbott is my early favorite for President in 2028.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
4 months ago

I’m sure the Batley Grammar School teacher is glad he paid his union dues after their stellar support of him.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
4 months ago

I can’t imagine how a party whose largest funders are hedge fund managers devoted to open borders, defunding the police, legalising shop lifting and all the rest of it can really be called a party for the working class and their unions.

Leslie Smith
Leslie Smith
4 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

When you have George Soros’s son, Alex, noted in NY Post as having visited the WH 20+ times – this should give you a clue as to the agenda of the Biden WH and his Administration and the Dems, and it’s not protecting workers or our national sovereignty. People in the UK know the fiscal damage Soros did to your nation years ago. He and is “Open Society” are trying to destroy us.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
4 months ago

People fret about how high the divorce rate has become; it’s at a 60-year low.

Before I read the rest of the article: how much of that is to do with fewer couples getting married?

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
4 months ago

What people really fret about is how low commitment to marriage is. That was the concern fifty years ago when divorce rates were rising, and its the concern now that never-married rates are rising. However, this introductory oversight is the least of Mr. deBoer’s mistakes.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
4 months ago

The rate is the rate, no matter the number of couples involved. The issue of fewer couples is far more salient in this climate.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
4 months ago

It’s hard to imagine how I could ever belong to a union in this capacity, and yet the fact remains that I work, and that corporations capture the value I create, resulting in my exploitation.

I don’t understand the mystery. In the UK he could join the NUJ as a freelancer.
I assume the equivalent union in the USA has similar membership options. But even if for some reason they don’t, its not a massive leap of imagination to look across the Atlantic at the UK.

Dillon Eliassen
Dillon Eliassen
4 months ago

This article misses several marks. 1. In America, private sector union membership is down but public sector union membership is up. 2. Take auto unions for example: the problem for those unions isn’t they can’t fight against auto makers capital and leadership, it’s that Democrats are prioritizing electric cars over internal combustion engine cars, and are wildly distorting the market and of course those unions will lose power as they lose market share. 3. “I don’t control the means of my production — Substack does, thanks to owning its servers — but I also have no specific employer.” Author conflates distribution with production. He owns the means of production (himself); he doesn’t own the Substack servers. 4. “(If you’d like a prominent example, last year UPS described the demands of the Teamsters Union that represents its workers as extortionate for months — then folded once an actual work stoppage drew near.)” Nothing about how one of the reasons YRC, the next largest freight carrier behind UPS and FedEx collapsed, due in large part to not being able to afford union demands (YRC had other problems too).

Jon Morrow
Jon Morrow
4 months ago

“It’s hard to imagine how I could ever belong to a union, and yet the fact remains that I work, and that corporations capture the value I create.”

Solution to this is easy – design some computer chips, mine and refine various metals and silicon, etch the required chips and build your own server. Install a global communications network and some power generation to drive it, write your pieces and charge access to the public to read it. Job done. ….or stop to think about the value you get from all the “evil” corporations that you are happy to buy from, presumably because they can provide you with goods and services you can’t remotely come close to providing for yourself and stop the infantile thinking of yourself as a victim.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
4 months ago
Reply to  Jon Morrow

Definitely the best comment here! Well said.
Provide something of real value to others, and you won’t have to unionize to be paid well. Mandatory unionization in Canada is basically a monopoly on the seller side of the labour market. The same people who support this monopoly would (rightly!) be very against it on the purchaser side.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
4 months ago

What an absolutely terrible article – written with about the level of self-reflection I would expect of a teenager. The author is so deeply committed to his erroneous ideology – “Unions protect regular folks from greedy capitalists” – that he cannot see how the world has long since moved on.
It’s not that working in a home or cubicle instead of a mine makes it harder to organize… it’s that workers in homes or cubicles have less interest in organizing, precisely because the alleged harms being visited upon them are so attenuated. This isn’t in any way a problem of process, but of substance.
If, just once, a union advocate would explain to me how they can tell if the market will bear a union-organized wage hike, obtained under threat of strike, before they strike, I would be very impressed. How can they tell if there is simply “extra profit” waiting to be redistributed from ownership to worker, or if their demands will instead decrease their employer’s competitiveness?
What happens is that the unions see something they want (more money), and use the legal levers at their disposal to claim it (striking). Sometimes that contributes significantly to the destruction of their own jobs by increasing the cost of their services beyond their own productive value. The company folds, or scales back, or winds down these or those operations. But those union bosses got their paychecks, so…
PS. The best part, I’m sorry to say, is when it’s left-wing journalists trying to organize against the media corporations that employ them. If they put themselves out of business with their own inflated vision of their worth, then no complaints from me.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
4 months ago

Organized labor is one of the three great anachronisms of our time in the US. Each has largely achieved its goals yet likes to pretend that we’re living in a combination of Jim Crow, the Handmaid’s Tale, and The Jungle. We’re not.
As with anything else, unions come with tradeoffs. For every protection or benefit to the group as a whole, there is a protection for the slackers and non-performers who should be cut away. The idea that unions are “always good” is nonsense; nothing is always good. In their day, unions had a role. Today, individuals have far more independence than workers of a hundred years ago.
This ties to the larger issue of activism – there is no solution being pursued, just the perpetuation of a perceived problem. Because there is money tied to that perception. Union bosses are paid handsomely. The Dems depend on the union dues that are funneled to the party, including money from people who are not themselves Dems. Like the other causes, the union is about the union and its continued existence.

Arthur King
Arthur King
4 months ago

The didn’t just abandon unions. They abandoned the working classes. Massive immigrant drives down wages and increases housing costs. Who does that benefit? The bourgeois! And when the workers rebel, they get called a basket full of deplorable.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
4 months ago

I think the answer to how to organize could be through the Internet. There are already groups on Reddit, 4chan, Facebook, X, etc. for fans of a specific TV show, fans of a sports team, lovers of cat videos, workers of a particular profession, and practically everything else under the sun. I can imagine an organized labor movement gaining strength in that venue IF it weren’t stopped by the big tech companies, which might well happen. If the workplace is virtual, the meeting places may as well be virtual also.
Before that happens though, the people will have to take back their governments. As long as wages are kept low through unrestricted free flow of people, goods, and money, then unions have no more chance to break the power of the international financial oligarchy than anyone else. The solution is to deglobalize the economy and restore economic sovereignty to national governments. The people in some ways already have an innate understanding of this. The people of the UK voted for Brexit only to learn their politicians never had any intention of actually following the public will and exercising the economic sovereignty the people were demanding. I think this demoralized the people of the UK and I can’t say I blame them.
Everywhere else though, we have populist movements making similar noise. Whether Trump wins or loses in 2024, his anti-globalization America first policy has already become political orthodoxy. TPP is dead, NAFTA got renegotiated, the China tariffs are staying, and nobody dares to do otherwise out of fear of political backlash. The CHIPS Act and infrastructure bills were recognized by everyone intelligent as unapologetic economic nationalism, and I expect more of the same regardless of who’s in the White House.
Once the nations of the world once again have more or less separate economies in a multipolar political world, the power of international finance will be checked by default because trying to diversify among several countries will once again entail serious risks. It’s risky for Americans to invest in China if there might be a war where China nationalizes the assets of Americans and Chinese investors face the same risk. Questions of political risk and allegiance become as important as economic calculations. If the dollar faces increased competition, exchange rates and the policies of other nations will come into play. Once the financiers have to hitch their wagons to one or another country, then the governments will again have power over them.
After that, I think unionization becomes a more realistic goal.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago

Same with much of the far left here in Uk, and much of the new left, youth, etc, plenty of time, energy for refugee and global issues though.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago

Can’t seem to downvote, and have a fair few to do so, given my (critical) left perspective, click on DV and nothing happens, anyone else? I am signed in, sub,

Ooop, working now

Fabio Paolo Barbieri
Fabio Paolo Barbieri
4 months ago

A union for independent contractors would have more the characteristics of a guild, setting up professional standards and denouncing their undermining, supporting capable members in periods of unemployment, creating a common savings bank and a savings fund, professional courses, contact networks, and actively opposing and investigating employers who do not respect minimum standards and employ incompetent labour.

Neiltoo .
Neiltoo .
4 months ago

“ and yet the fact remains that I work, and that corporations capture the value I create, resulting in my exploitation.”

Exploitation is it? My, haven’t times changed.

Paul T
Paul T
4 months ago

The actors’ and screenwriters’ strikes have been a complete disaster. Many independents went bust, many actors went without work and income, power was further concentrated in the big studios and the newer players like Netflix and Amazon. They could not have designed a better strategy to keep themselves at the top of the whole machine.

Nancy Kmaxim
Nancy Kmaxim
4 months ago

One of the factors missing from this piece is the question of who the union represents. The union which ostensibly represented me spent far more money on political issues which in no way impacted actual working conditions than on contract negotiations. Union membership is far more diverse in the current age, and union leaders seem economically and socially far removed from those who are paying their salaries.

Christopher Posner
Christopher Posner
4 months ago

US union membership has plummeted. But young workers are organising, pushing companies to rise to the occasion and meet their demands for better conditions on the job. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20230831-the-gen-zers-leading-a-new-pro-union-push

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
4 months ago

Freddie deBoer represents his position as much more poweless than it really is. He is selling his books and articles through a variety of platforms on terms that are negotiated between the parties. He is not necessarily being exploited just because the platforms he uses are owned by corporations. To claim that he does not own the means of production (Substack does) is wrong. He owns his computer. Substack is merely the method he chooses to disseminate his material. Other than that, an interesting account of trade unions in today’s USA.
And on a side point, divorce rates are low because many fewer people have been getting married. Separation rates of unmarried couples are sky high.

M To the Tea
M To the Tea
4 months ago

One compelling argument for unions to engage more deeply in political activities, beyond their traditional role as protectors against labor exploitation, is illustrated by the historical example of Nicolas Fouquet. Despite Fouquet’s significant wealth and influence, his lack of political leverage ultimately led to his downfall. This underscores the crucial understanding that true power lies not merely in financial resources or personal connections, but in the ability to influence and shape policy and regulations within the political sphere.

Robert Pruger
Robert Pruger
4 months ago

The author hit on the biggest reason that private unions are declining In one sentence (very short term stays) and then the employee moves on. An Amazon distribution worker thinks of his job as a way stop on to something else. Very difficult to organize employees under those circumstances. Ditto for many other jobs.
Public employees have a vastly different mindset and their employee union dues go to promote cultural issues (gun restrictions, open borders, decriminalize anything but the most awful crimes, right to abortion up to end of term). Try any of those policies on unionized workers in manufacturing, mining, construction, or transportation and see the response of the rank and file.
In my last C-suite employment in the construction industry, we (management and overwhelmingly Republican) proposed a company policy banning guns and other dangerous weapons on company or customer property. The blow back from the field employees (generally bluedog Democrats) was a vehement “no”. We compromised by caving in and forbidding weapons within our office walls and in client’s buildings but they could have whatever was legal in their vehicles and on job sites.
Union organizers are woke and share views that Rob Henderson calls “luxury beliefs” (see elsewhere on Unherd for Freddy Sayers interview of Rob). Union workers and potential unionized workers know that electric vehicles means 30% less labor, an illegal will work for less and frequently under the table, and they don’t want anyone telling their son Jose that he might be a girl. I could go on, but you should get the picture. Unions are a tough sell if it giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other.
The trajectory for unions is largely public unions, comprised mostly of women, frequently unmarried and woke.

Brian Matthews
Brian Matthews
4 months ago

No, Joe Biden is the first president to stand in a picket line.

That makes up for all that other stuff.