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A Labor Day look at workers under Biden's presidency

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On this Labor Day, we're going to examine a promise from the president.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I meant what I said when I said I'm going to be the most pro-union president in American history, and I make no apologies for it.

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SHAPIRO: So how has the Biden administration been for workers? NPR's Andrea Hsu takes a look.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Let's start with workers themselves - people like Laura Leguizamo, who works in housekeeping at the J.W. Marriott in downtown Los Angeles.

LAURA LEGUIZAMO: No. Everything is expensive. I have to move from my home because they sell the property, and I couldn't find any place, you know, cheaper.

HSU: Her union has been staging strikes and rallies and demanding an immediate 20% raise in their next contract and more in years to come. Leguizamo says she simply can't afford to live on her salary, which is...

LEGUIZAMO: Twenty-five an hour.

HSU: Twenty-five dollars an hour - well above LA's minimum wage of 16.90 an hour, but still not enough.

LEGUIZAMO: All the payments and bills and rent...

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LEGUIZAMO: ...And the food is very expensive.

HSU: Now, workers in LA have it particularly bad, given soaring housing prices. But, all over the country, workers are finding that even though their wages have gone up a lot since Biden came into office...

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BIDEN: Pay for low-wage workers has grown at the fastest pace in over two decades.

HSU: ...Inflation has been tough - really tough. Wage gains only started outpacing inflation in July. Now, Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su notes how steeply inflation has fallen.

JULIE SU: It's like a third of what it was just a year ago.

HSU: And she points out this has happened without a spike in unemployment or a decline in wages. So things should be looking up even if people aren't feeling it yet.

But what about new jobs? Well, job creation has been strong under Biden. And Su says look at all the new opportunities in clean energy and manufacturing that are projected to come on line thanks to federal investments in infrastructure and semiconductors - the CHIPS Act.

SU: Two trillion dollars are going to start hitting communities all across the country and creating more good jobs - good union jobs.

HSU: Sounds good, but there are doubters - people like Scott Lincicome, a free market economist with the Cato Institute, who's warned the spending could prove wasteful. He spoke to NPR last fall.

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SCOTT LINCICOME: Time and time again with U.S. industrial policy projects, the government has good intentions but ends up actually backing the wrong horse.

HSU: Others are more optimistic about the administration's choices and what they'll do for workers. Lorena Roque, a policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy, gives the administration credit for trying to reach workers who have been shut out of opportunities in the past - including, for example, requiring companies who want CHIPS money to provide access to affordable child care.

LORENA ROQUE: I think the key with a lot of the Biden administration's job creation is also making sure that there are equitable pathways and equitable access for women and people of color.

HSU: Of course, there's still a long way to go to make that a reality. Biden's $200 billion proposal to make child care affordable, even free for Americans didn't go anywhere. And now COVID emergency money for day cares is running out. Now, one thing the Biden administration has done is raise the visibility of workers. The president appears alongside union members all the time.

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BIDEN: Electricians, carpenters, ironworkers, steelworkers, laborers, bricklayers, plumbers, pipefitters, police officers, firefighters...

HSU: And America's support for unions is close to a 60-year high. But whether the administration can parlay that support into real growth in union membership is still a big question. One big disappointment for unions - the administration has not been able to get a bill passed that would make it easier for workers to organize and harder for companies to push back. Without that, many parts of Biden's agenda for workers remain on hold.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.