Jill Biden is only the 3rd US first lady to be a union member. Here's why that matters.

  • Jill Biden, a professor, belongs to the 3-million-member National Education Association.
  • The first lady follows Eleanor Roosevelt and Nancy Reagan, also union members.
  • She is the first president’s wife to continue her professional career while at the White House.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

President Joe Biden calls himself a “union guy” to describe his support for workers, but his wife Jill Biden is the one who holds the membership card.

“Dr. B,” as her students at Northern Virginia Community College know her, belongs to the 3-million-member National Education Association, the nation’s largest union.

Along with being the first president’s wife to continue her professional career while at the White House, she’s also among just a few first ladies to be union members, following Eleanor Roosevelt and Nancy Reagan.

It’s a distinction that’s not only historic but fully in line with the administration’s pro-union stance. It’s also a big lift to teachers unions that had a rough start with the Obama administration and then spent the past four years locked in battle after battle with the Trump administration. 

“She helps create the environment that, we’re working together on very complex and tough problems,” Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, told Insider. “She creates trust.”

For union members, it’s encouraging to have someone in the White House who understands their struggles. Biden, who has a doctorate in educational leadership, has taught for more than three decades at high schools, an adolescent psychiatric hospital, and community colleges. 

Unions constantly battled with former President Donald Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over policies teachers believed would dismantle public education and make schools unsafe during a pandemic. DeVos accused unions of protecting their jobs over the needs of students.

“With Dr. Jill, we have one of us fighting for our kids and for our schools,” NEA President Becky Pringle, said during a fundraiser with Biden in October.

The White House has already been dispatching the first lady to schools as it works to reopen education institutions after months of remote learning and tensions between teachers unions and school districts.

School Superintendent Dorrell Green introduces Jill Biden to speak at Shortlidge Academy in Wilmington, Delaware, on September 1, 2020.Photo by Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)

Boosting the Biden administration’s credibility with unions

Jill Biden’s union membership is good PR as her husband aims to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.” His decision to cancel the Keystone XL oil pipeline construction permit on his first day in office riled some union members who worried about job losses. But the president has taken multiple steps to appease and promote unions. 

His American Jobs Act aims to create more union jobs rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and it calls on Congress to pass union-backed legislation to protect workers’ right to organize. He tapped a Labor secretary, former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who is a former union leader. He also tweeted a video message supporting Amazon workers hoping to unionize in Alabama. 

Jill Biden’s NEA membership is meaningful as part of a pattern of labor ties and support that, together gives the administration credibility in union circles and will help during the midterm elections, said Brad Bannon, a pollster for Democrats, progressive issue groups and labor unions. Energized and organized union support will be crucial to protecting and expanding Democratic majorities in Congress, he said.

“She is going to be a key campaigner next year like she was in the presidential election and her union ties are a big deal when she speaks to a labor group like in Michigan or, you know, someplace else with a close House or Senate election,” he said.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a longtime labor supporter and her membership in the Newspaper Guild was a “wonderful symbolic move for a pro-labor administration,” said Ohio University professor Katherine Jellison, who studies first ladies. Roosevelt joined the union after she started writing her syndicated “My Day” column.

In December 1939, Roosevelt wrote that, while some may not approve of every Guild position, “I think there is no one who will not agree that fundamentally the Guild has improved conditions for newspaper people as a whole.”

Nancy Reagan — then Davis — was a member of the Screen Actors Guild for nearly seven decades, and met her future husband, Ronald Reagan, when he was Guild president. She turned to him to help her demonstrate that she wasn’t another Nancy Davis accused of having communist ties, Jellison said.

Jill Biden’s union membership shows a consistency in the way the Bidens are governing and living their lives, Jellison said. “For a long time, the teachers unions have very much been affiliated with the Democratic Party, and I think this just strengthens that bond,” she said.

In her memoir, Jill Biden recalled the tension in her life as both a professor and second lady, “caught between State receptions and midterm exams,” grading papers in a nook on Air Force Two and scrambling into a cocktail dress and heels in a bathroom at Northern Virginia Community College to make it to a White House reception. Though she speaks often of her work as a professor, she is intent on keeping her professional and first lady roles separate. 

“I want students to see me as their English teacher. I am not mentioning it in my classes AT ALL,” she wrote to colleagues in an email obtained by CBS News.

Kelley Firko, now a kindergarten teacher in Wilmington, Delaware, remembers learning about Romeo and Juliet from her then-teacher Jill Biden at Brandywine High School in the early 1990s. Students thought of her as “motherly” and easy to talk to, said Firko, who is now the president of the Red Clay Education Association.

First Lady Jill Biden speaks during an Equal Pay Day at the White House on March 24, 2021.Photo by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

‘She understands the union perspective’

Last year, Firko had a chance to talk with her former teacher about the relationship between the local union and the Red Clay School District during a campaign stop. 

“It’s just refreshing that she understands that teacher perspective and she understands the union perspective and what we are trying to do for our members,” she said.

Jill Biden hasn’t been a union leader, but she spoke of her membership as a point of pride during the campaign. “Trust me when I say this campaign stands with labor,” she tweeted in September.

She held several events with teachers unions during the campaign and invited Weingarten and Pringle to the White House on January 21, reminding them on the day after her husband’s inauguration that “you will always have a seat at the table.”

The two leaders later joined Jill Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, a former AFT member, separately on school visits in March to look at safety measures for in-person learning. 

Senior Education Department appointees have union ties. Emma Leheny, principal deputy general counsel and acting general counsel, joined the administration from NEA’s office of general counsel. Donna Harris-Aikens, senior advisor for policy and planning in the office of the Secretary, was previously a senior director for education policy and practice at NEA.  

The department’s chief of staff, Sheila Nix, once served as chief of staff for Jill Biden during her time as second lady.

Weingarten said AFT talks to Biden administration staff repeatedly in meetings about reopening schools. The shift from the Trump to Biden administration has been like “day and night” for teachers, she said. 

The Bidens understand the importance of labor as an economic tool to lift wages and working conditions for people and as a pathway to the middle class, she said. Jill Biden’s experience as an educator, Weingarten added, is reflected in the administration’s policies that value public education, respect educators and focus on reopening schools safely.

“You’re seeing her lived experience show up in these things,” she said.

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