WASHINGTON -- Vice President Biden gave the Obama administration's most forceful statement of solidarity with organized labor in its current battles around the nation on Thursday, encouraging activists to continue fighting for workers' rights.
"You guys built the middle class," said Biden in a virtual town hall conversation hosted by the AFL-CIO. "I would just emphasize what Hilda [Solis] said and say it slightly different: We don't see the value of collective bargaining, we see the absolute positive necessity of collective bargaining. Let's get something straight: The only people who have the capacity -- organizational capacity and muscle -- to keep, as they say, the barbarians from the gate, is organized labor. And make no mistake about it, the guys on the other team get it. They know if they cripple labor, the gate is open, man. The gate is wide open. And we know that too."
The e-mail announcement for the call went out to labor activists, including members of the growing advocacy group Working America, and it pitched the call as a conversation with 100,000 supporters about "Republican assaults on collective bargaining in at least a dozen states." AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis joined Biden on the call, where listeners were also allowed to ask questions (although Biden had to leave before that portion).
Biden's comments underscored the importance of labor not only in terms of workers' rights but also politically. He acknowledged the role that unions played in helping launch his political career, and he noted his personal identification with the activists as someone who grew up in the Rust Belt in Scranton, Penn.
"I've got to state the obvious," he said. "There's an old expression: 'You go home with them that brung you to the dance.' You guys all brought me to the dance 36 years ago in Delaware as a United States senator. You've been with me, and I've stayed with you."
Both Biden and Solis used the opportunity to promote what the Obama administration has done for this valuable constituency, such as restoring a level "playing field" at the Labor Department and the National Labor Relations Board upon taking office.
"Now look, I'm sure a lot of you out there saying, 'Gosh, why hasn't the President, why hasn't the Vice President -- why haven't they stopped these guys in the states? Why haven't we been able to do this?' Look folks. We are flat committed," Biden assured the listeners, bringing up the jobs created and retained by the Recovery Act -- many of which were for public workers such as teachers and firefighters.
"Now look. Here's the irony of all this. I find this ridiculous," said Biden later in the call, becoming increasingly passionate. "The very philosophy, the very conservative people who got us in this ditch, who created -- through their greed -- this orgy of focusing on the super wealthy and Wall Street without regulations, the very people who drove us into this ditch, are now the people using you guys as the scapegoats. This is what you call blaming the victim. The people of the neighborhoods we all grew up in and you guys live in, organized labor, they're the very people getting killed right now by this economy. And the audacity these guys that come along and say, 'Hey, this is the fault of collective bargaining' -- that is malarkey."
"I'm available, I'm here, I'm working with you, I wish I could be even more effective than we've been, but this is only the beginning of the fight," he ended.
On Feb. 24, Biden also had on his public schedule a meeting with Solis and Trumka. In mid-February, Obama told a Wisconsin television station, "Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions. And I think it's very important for us to understand that public employees, they're our neighbors, they're our friends.”