Decisions, decisions: Unions battle each other over Biden's coming federal-worker vaccine mandate

(AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)

I’d say pass the popcorn, but that might require a union crew. Politico reports that the unions normally in lockstep with Democrats have split bitterly over Joe Biden’s decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations and/or testing regimes for all federal workers. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka gamely supported Biden’s move, but his constituent unions oppose it — especially the teachers union:


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.


Andrew McCarthy wrote on Monday that employer vaccine mandates are legal and that courts have upheld them in the past. However, that argument didn’t touch on the issue of collective bargaining. One has to wonder just how much leeway an employer with a CBA governing their labor practices can impose a unilateral mandate as a condition of employment. Courts may give employers leeway in crises, but in the case of state agencies with unionized workforces, they might balk at such moves — especially when it appears that the employer never bothered to negotiate the issue in the first place.

The bigger worry here for the Biden administration is political — in two ways. The most obvious issue is splitting unions and having them waste time and resources on infighting rather than carrying water for the administration. That could get even worse if the unions band together and seriously oppose the White House on vaccine mandates, eroding their energy for the upcoming midterms and putting Democrats even more on the defensive than they will otherwise be.

Second, the White House and the media have tried mightily to paint vaccine resistance as a Republican/rural phenomenon, when in fact it covers a fairly broad political, social, and ethnic spectrum. The last thing they need is to have union workers rise up in defiance of vaccinations, which even the media would have to cover and which will most definitely not look like a primarily Republican/rural phenomenon. It will be much tougher for Biden and media outlets to sneer at union workers.


Plus, as Politico points out, it makes the Biden administration look impotent on its key public-health priority:

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.

Yesterday, the International Association of Fire Fighters — a union with close ties to Biden — defiantly rejected any imposition of vaccine mandates [see update]. That was more in response to Bill de Blasio’s mandate in New York City, which also stoked union ire not just for the policy but also in the high-handed manner in which it was launched. The New York Times also points out that the demographics of these unions threaten to undermine the media narrative on refuseniks:

The opposition from unions — based in part on a general reluctance to force members, many of whom are Black and Latino, to get the vaccine — is more rooted in the logistics of offering vaccines or weekly tests, and the discipline for those who do not comply. For now, it seems unlikely that it could lead to lawsuits or strikes. …

Gregory Floyd, the president of a major union that represents public housing workers, said he supports a vaccine requirement for city workers, but he was frustrated by Mr. de Blasio’s hasty announcement, and his members had concerns about the details.

“The mayor is doing a responsible thing by telling us all we have to get vaccinated or get tested every week, but he can’t do a responsible thing in a rational or reasonable way,” Mr. Floyd said. “He could have had meetings with all of the unions, set the policy, set the tone, answered questions and rolled this out in a cohesive way.”

John Samuelsen, the president of the transit workers’ union, said that his members have “diverse ideas about whether or not to get the vaccine.” He has heard from workers who already had Covid-19 and do not believe they need to get vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that people should get vaccinated even if they already had Covid-19 because experts do not know how long protection lasts after someone recovers.

“There are transit workers that have religious reasons, health reasons — it comes from several different angles,” Mr. Samuelsen said.


Biden’s about to open up a big can of worms for Democrats. Even if this policy is wise, it seems destined to be held up in court for months, long after its utility has passed. If Biden really tries to enforce it up front, he might be left with the sole option of forcing a decertification fight in order to enforce the policy, on a scale that would make Ronald Reagan’s fight with PATCO look like a charming interlude for unions. There wouldn’t be enough popcorn in the world to pass around during that meltdown on the Left.

Update: Tim Burn of the IAFF disputes my characterization of their reaction to de Blasio’s mandate:

Your posting on is inaccurate regarding the International Association of Fire Fighters. We have not defiantly rejected anything.  — Tim Burn

“We’re not doing any mandates. We’re not advocating any mandates for vaccination,” said Tim Burn, 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.”

Fair enough; the word “defiantly” might be too much in this case. They are opposing it for now, though.

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David Strom 6:40 PM | April 18, 2024