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By Steve Holland and Nandita Bose
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The White House on Thursday launched an effort to increase the number of American workers belonging to unions, address income inequality and redress a power imbalance that favors employers.
The agenda was unveiled at the first meeting of President Joe Biden's labor task force, which he created in April.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who leads the group, said the work was a high priority for the administration. "When there are more union members, there is less income inequality," she said.
Harris also said the COVID-19 pandemic exposed fractures in the system designed to protect worker rights. "For whom things were bad, today they're even worse." she said.
A White House official told Reuters that between 1979 and 2020, the percentage of American workers represented by a union dropped by 14.9 percentage points. According to analysts, because of that drop American workers are losing out on $200 billion a year in wages and benefits they could have achieved under union contracts, the official said.
Among the many barriers to unionization, employers may require U.S. workers to attend mandatory anti-union meetings. Workers may face surveillance and even intimidation from their employers in their campaign to win union representation.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, a former union official, who serves as vice chair of the group, said the decline in union membership has led to wage stagnation, reduced opportunities for people of color and shifted power away from workers to corporations.
"The system that was supposed to encourage organizing has been tilted against the worker," Walsh said.
U.S. organized labor suffered a big setback in April when Amazon.com Inc warehouse workers in Alabama voted against forming a union by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Union leaders had hoped the election outside Birmingham would spark a new era of worker activism.
Unions have lobbied for the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which prohibits employers from holding anti-union meetings and imposes penalties for violating workers' rights. The House passed the measure in March, but the bill faces long odds in the Senate.
Over 65% of Americans approve of unions, the most since 2003, according to a 2020 Gallup poll, even as only over 6% of U.S. private-sector workers belong to unions.
(Reporting by Nandita Bose in WashingtonEditing by Matthew Lewis and Cynthia Osterman)