Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement and negotiated the agreement to grant permanent most-favored-nation status to China, decisions that have cost more than four million jobs, a disproportionate number of them well-paying unionized manufacturing jobs. In 2009, Mr. Obama, who had a filibuster-proof Democratic majority, quickly abandoned a promise to require employers to recognize a union when a majority of workers signed cards indicating they wanted one. “Obama and Clinton both surrounded themselves with a lot of Wall Street people who had no clue,” Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., told The Los Angeles Times last month. “We were an annoyance to be dealt with.”
During the presidential campaign, Mr. Biden promised to be the “most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” And on his first day in office, he fired Peter Robb, the powerful general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. For decades, Mr. Robb had been a management-side labor lawyer and, in fact, had been Mr. Reagan’s lead attorney when Mr. Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, effectively breaking their union. (In a particularly wrenching but revealing irony, the union had endorsed Mr. Reagan.)
Mr. Biden also spoke out in favor of the unionization drive at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama and has professed support for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the most ambitious effort to strengthen labor rights in decades, which passed in the House in March. The bill would, among other things, weaken right-to-work laws, give the N.L.R.B. the power to fine companies that retaliate against organizing workers, and allow many gig workers to be reclassified as employees, making it easier for them to unionize. Mr. Biden replaced a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office — installed by Mr. Trump — with one of Franklin Roosevelt, labor’s greatest ally in the White House.
But Mr. Biden also quickly abandoned an effort to include a $15 minimum wage in the $1.9 trillion reconciliation stimulus package, one of labor’s top priorities, and the PRO Act stands virtually no chance of passage without the elimination of the Senate filibuster, which Mr. Biden has equivocated about.
Meanwhile, labor’s fall continues. Last month, the Supreme Court overruled a California regulation that made it easier for farmworkers to organize. And while this year’s budget proposal by Mr. Walker’s successor, Tony Evers, a moderate Democrat, called for repealing the right-to-work law and much of Act 10, the proposal stands almost no immediate chance of success — the State Legislature has been firmly in Republican control since heavily gerrymandered redistricting maps were passed in 2011. Other Democratic governors have been downright hostile to labor. Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat, opposes an effort to repeal Virginia’s right-to-work law, despite his party’s control of all three branches of state government there.
If Mr. Biden’s portrait exchange is to be anything more than symbolism, he and other Democratic leaders will need to fight harder to expand labor rights. Labor unrest and growing hostility from the business community helped push Mr. Roosevelt to sign the Wagner Act, a 1935 law that guaranteed private sector workers the right to form unions and to strike. Mr. Roosevelt understood that labor rights were essential, not peripheral, to the New Deal; by empowering workers with a collective voice, they become more active participants in democracy and create a counterweight to the political and economic power of capital. Mr. Roosevelt also understood that labor rights are good politics; Mr. Biden would do well to remember that Democrats’ period of greatest dominance in the country, starting with the New Deal and running through the Great Society, was a time when union membership was at its peak. Labor’s capacity to foster social cohesion is essential to tackling seemingly intractable problems like economic inequality, racism and climate change.
After the Jan. 6 riot, Mr. Walker tweeted out a specious comparison between the violent mob at the Capitol and the peaceful protests against Act 10. As Charles Tubbs, the chief of the Wisconsin State Capitol Police during the weekslong protests in Madison, told me recently, “They were as different as daylight from dark.” Out of an estimated 1.5 million people who participated in the protests at the Capitol, Mr. Tubbs said, only 16 were arrested by the police, nearly all of them for acts of civil disobedience.