President Biden’s vaccination mandate announcement on Friday has drawn a notably cool reaction from unions. While none appear to have come out against it, few have backed it. The few who have even weighed in have stressed that the president shouldn’t do this unilaterally; unions should be allowed to sign off on the mandate first.
“Everyone should be vaccinated—as one step in stopping the pandemic. Workers and unions should have a voice in shaping these policies,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, following Biden’s announcement.
“[C]hanges like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units where appropriate. Put simply, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions,” said American Federation of Government Employees President Everett Kelley.
Most other unions haven’t commented at all—an unusual silence given that Biden’s proposal says that workers who refuse to comply can be fired from their private sector jobs. The United Autoworkers said Friday it was “reviewing the details of yesterday’s announcements” and has yet to issue a follow-up statement.
The most notable supporters of Biden’s announcement are the two main teachers’ unions, both of which backed the mandate without any caveats. But they’re a special case because they’ve taken heavy criticism from parents for opposing school reopenings on safety grounds. A vaccine mandate may look to them like the best solution out of the corner they have painted themselves into.
Otherwise, it’s an awkward issue for labor leaders. Most publicly support vaccination but their rank and file members don’t necessarily. Unions are—in theory, anyway—democratic organizations, so they at least have to look like they’re trying to accommodate their members. The mandate is also a strict new workplace policy being imposed without any input from them. Political leaders never like to cede power, even to a supposed ally, and union leaders are no different in that regard. Finally, those same leaders have pretty much bet their future on Biden saving them through legislation, so they don’t want to see him weakened now.
It’s doubtful that any union will come out in opposition to the mandate, if only because no labor leader wants to become known as “The Anti-Vaccine Guy/Girl.” But the lack of any enthusiasm for the vaccination proposal among unions—the supposed representatives of the workers and Biden’s allies—could be awkward for Blue Collar Joe.