Politico

Biden's talk of vaccine mandates sends labor into disarray


As the Biden White House weighs vaccine mandates for businesses and the federal workforce, some of its firmest outside allies are bristling at the idea.

A steep divide has emerged among labor unions — as well as between members and leaders — over whether to require workers to be vaccinated.

On Tuesday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said he would support a mandate, giving a boost to White House efforts to increase vaccination rates after they stagnated in recent weeks. But Trumka’s position was at odds with some of the AFL-CIO’s largest members, including the American Federation of Teachers, whose president said that vaccine protocols should be decided at individual workplaces. Other unions have also voiced opposition.

Behind the scenes, labor leaders and White House officials clashed after Biden on Tuesday publicly stated that the White House was considering vaccine mandates for federal employees. According to two people briefed on the discussions, White House officials reached out to union leaders to alert them that federal agencies would be expected to more broadly require vaccinations. On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs did just that, announcing that they were requiring a portion of their employees to get vaccinated or be tested regularly.

“The White House reached out and made it clear, the VA was the first to go and the other agencies are planning to follow suit,” a person briefed on the discussions said. Serious discussions about vaccination requirements for federal employees have been underway since the weekend, when White House and agency officials talked about an agency-by-agency approach to compel vaccination.

Labor leaders called the move premature, complaining that it would prompt a litany of requests for exemptions and fearing it would only further alienate a percentage of their membership that was already unlikely to get vaccinated, according to two people briefed on the discussions.

A source with knowledge of the White House strategy said on Tuesday that no final decision had been made about implementing a vaccination mandate across the federal workforce. But the source said the administration was considering “attestation of vaccination” for workers — meaning either confirming vaccination status or abiding by stringent Covid-19 protocols like mandatory mask wearing and regular testing.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents unionized federal workers, declined to be interviewed for this article.

The pushback from parts of the labor community — and the fissures within it — mirrored the divisions breaking out among employers and businesses across the country as they grapple with health protocols amid a spike in hospitalizations among unvaccinated populations driven by the highly-contagious delta variant. They also reflect the hurdles that the White House still has to confront in getting the entire country inoculated. Even their ostensible allies can’t seem to sell all their members on the vaccine.

Interviews with more than half a dozen labor leaders, local union members and labor consultants revealed a labor movement still grappling with the public health crisis and the reality that a notable percentage of its diversified membership opposes being forced to get the shot. While the AFT, for example, rejected the idea of compulsory vaccination for members, it did laud the update issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tuesday recommending that both vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans who live in areas where Covid-19 transmission is “high” or “substantial” wear masks indoors.

Few presidents have touted their relationship with the union community as forcefully as Biden has. He has repeatedly praised organized labor as a close ally and pledged to pursue policies that will help them reverse decades of membership decline. Among those unions close to the president, the International Association of Fire Fighters stands at the top. The group claims a “special relationship” with Biden on its website and organized heavily behind his primary campaign. But it too said it would not require its members to get vaccinated, even if the White House pushes it.

“We’re not doing any mandates. We’re not advocating any mandates for vaccination,” said Tim Burns, press secretary for the IAFF. “At this point we want to make sure that our members have what they need to stay safe on the job. And we are encouraging them to vaccinate and communicating with our local affiliates.”

In interviews, local labor and national leaders — who are elected by their members — expressed hope that the White House or the CDC would give a clear signal on the mandates to shield them from having to do so and face a rank-and-file backlash.

Some unions say that because the vaccine has become so politicized, mandates from leadership would be less effective and only alienate certain members. Instead, they’ve pushed leadership to focus on incentive and outreach programs that have been effective at getting rank and file members vaccinated. Several unions have bargained with companies throughout the pandemic to provide perks to workers. The Association of Flight Attendants, which has so far declined to explicitly endorse a vaccine mandate, negotiated an optional program providing three extra vacation days to United Airlines flight attendants who received the vaccine.

One labor consultant noted that Trumka’s public remarks were likely a signal to other unions that this was the direction in which federal policy was heading, and a nudge for them to get on board, too. In his role as AFL-CIO president, Trumka represents a consortium of labor groups acting as a leading voice for a large swath of organized labor.

His insulation from rank-and-file membership means he may be in less danger of facing direct blowback from affiliate union’s members, said the consultant, who asked not to be named because the person was not authorized to speak on behalf of the union.

“If you’re coming back into the workplace, you have to know what’s around you,” Trumka said in an interview with C-SPAN’s Washington Journal on Tuesday. “First of all, if you come back in and you’re not vaccinated, everybody in that workplace is jeopardized. Second of all, if we don’t know whether you’ve been vaccinated or not, we can’t make the proper accommodations to make sure that you are protected and everybody else is protected.”

So far, the nation’s two largest education unions, The National Education Association and the AFT, have declined to call for vaccine mandates. Instead, the NEA says that teachers should be given the option of weekly testing, while the AFT says it should be decided in contract negotiations between the workers and the company.

Some local union chapters, which are more directly connected with union members than leadership at the national offices, have also issued statements opposing vaccine mandates, as governments in California and New York City announced that they are requiring public employees to get vaccinated or be tested regularly.

The AFSCME District Council 37, New York City’s largest public employee union, told POLITICO it opposes vaccine mandates, although the local “strongly encourages” its members to get the shot, even booking appointments on behalf of its members.

The president of the Service Employees International Union 1199, which represents workers in D.C, Maryland and Virginia, also issued a statement condemning the University of Maryland Medical System’s decision in June to mandate the vaccine for its employees.

“As our union’s president George Gresham said, ‘A hard-handed approach will not work and will only create greater frustration for the healthcare heroes who have been battling this pandemic every day for the last 15 months,’” the 1199 SEIU chapter representing Maryland and D.C. said in a statement. “We agree that vaccination paired with free, regular, and accessible testing are important tools to help us move past this pandemic.”

Federal workplace civil rights agencies have largely given employers the green light to require their staff to get vaccinated, with some caveats. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with policing federal anti-discrimination laws, has cautioned that businesses must be prepared to provide accommodations for workers who refuse to get the shot because of their religious beliefs or a disability.

But ultimately, if a company is unable to accommodate a worker who declines to get vaccinated because it would present too much of a hardship, the company can ultimately terminate the worker.

Juan Perez contributed to this report.

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