PITTSBURGH ― Former Vice President Joe Biden had a clear message on the first day of his third campaign to become president of the United States: “I am a union man ― period.”
Biden’s opening speech of his 2020 bid came at a Teamsters union hall in Pittsburgh on Monday, after introductions from the head of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and a member of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. At the start of the speech, he rattled off the names of the unions who had members in attendance.
But don’t expect a full-on bear hug between Biden and the labor movement as a whole. While the IAFF’s high-profile endorsement the same day was a boon for the front-running Democratic candidate, most of the nation’s labor unions, who are feeling re-empowered within the Democratic Party, may bide their time before picking a candidate from among the more than 20 seeking the party’s nomination to challenge President Donald Trump.
Biden has a close relationship with the IAFF and its president, Harold Schaitberger, stretching back to the 1970s. His centrist politics and personal profile also square up well with the union ― its membership includes many independents and Republicans, and firefighters on the whole tend to be white and male. Other unions in the public and service sectors look quite different, both politically and demographically.
The former vice president will face a tougher challenge courting the more progressive unions at a time when his fellow candidates are talking a big game on collective bargaining. For all the dire challenges facing organized labor, the Democratic Party has moved decisively in labor’s direction since 2016, with prominent Democrats making the case for strong unions, a $15 minimum wage and an overhaul of the country’s labor laws.
“You can’t paint the labor movement with one sweeping brush because they represent so many different workers,” said Nevada state Sen. Yvanna Cancela (D), a former political director of Las Vegas’ powerful Culinary Union. “The labor movement has such an opportunity because now more than ever, there’s pressure to combat income inequality. And throughout the history of America, the best way to get people to the middle class and keep them there has been the labor movement.”
Still, Cancela quickly endorsed Biden after he announced he was running. “I really believe that he has the pulse on the struggles of the everyday American worker,” she said.
Democratic presidential candidates raced one another to join the picket lines when Stop & Shop grocery store workers with the United Food and Commercial Workers union went on strike earlier this month. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, was delivering speeches at Fight for $15 rallies long before it became fashionable among Democratic pols. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been pushing legislation to ban so-called “right-to-work” laws. Sen. Kamala Harris has rolled out a plan to significantly increase teacher pay through federal spending.
It’s not clear how much Biden has moved with the rest of his party in terms of policies to boost a weakened labor movement, which currently represents just 6.4 percent of private sector workers.
“We want to use this next year to make sure that our issues come to the fore, to make the candidates speak more forcefully and more broadly, and not just to union audiences.”
Although he has gotten behind a $15 minimum wage, he has spoken mostly in generalities about labor since his campaign launch, reiterating that unions “built the middle class.” And while the Obama administration was a friend to organized labor, that administration reserved most of its talk about collective bargaining for union crowds. Biden could also be somewhat saddled by his Senate vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement ― an issue on which Sanders is already knocking him.
Still, Biden’s appearance in Pittsburgh and his stops at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and IAFF conferences in Washington in recent months have shown that many rank-and-file members have genuine affection for “Uncle Joe,” showering him with “Run, Joe, run!” chants.
Darrin Kelly, a firefighter and the president of the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council, said after a Workers’ Memorial Day event in Pittsburgh that his group would likely stay neutral for now. But when asked what type of Democratic candidate could win the swing state of Pennsylvania, what he described sounded a lot like a former Delaware senator and vice president.
“We don’t forget the past. You don’t forget what someone has done,” Kelly said. “National politics has so much polarization and division, and that’s not going to work here in our state. Our message has to be about what’s uniting. Everybody wants a strong infrastructure plan, everybody wants better wages, everybody wants retirement dignity, everybody wants access to health care. Those connect the left to the right. That’s how you win a state like Pennsylvania.”
Rand Wilson, a union activist who volunteered in 2016 for the pro-Sanders group Labor for Bernie, said unions are in an excellent position to demand that all the Democratic candidates lay out how they would help rebuild the union movement.
“[There’s] more pro-worker conversation coming out of the mouths of Democrats, but we still have a long ways to go,” said Wilson, who is supporting Sanders again. “It’s early but I’m not hearing talk about making it a lot easier for workers to join unions. We want to use this next year to make sure that our issues come to the fore, to make the candidates speak more forcefully and more broadly, and not just to union audiences.”
Several unions have suggested they may sit back and see how the primary shapes up before getting behind one candidate, unlike the many early endorsements of Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 election. Some of the largest and more progressive unions, in particular, may go this route, including the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the American Federation of Teachers.
“You can’t paint the labor movement with one sweeping brush because they represent so many different workers.”
Those unions all threw their weight behind Clinton in either the summer or fall of 2015 when it appeared she was the presumptive presidential nominee, a move that rankled union members and staffers who were pro-Sanders.
Lee Saunders, the president of AFSCME, said the 2020 Democratic candidates, like the general public, have been warming up to unions more and more, putting organized labor in the position to start a “robust national conversation” about policy for workers.
“We are seeing both the emerging presidential field and Americans across the country increasingly embrace unions,” Saunders said in a statement. “With this momentum, we are in no rush to endorse, but we will be heavily engaged in ensuring that public service workers hear from candidates.”
The American Federation of Teachers wants its members to feel comfortable arguing for any candidate and wants the candidates “to actually walk in our shoes and really understand the challenges” that teachers face, union President Randi Weingarten said in an interview. To that end, the union has already done events with Harris and Sanders, and plans to do more with others. The teacher who introduced Biden at Monday’s rally belongs to an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
“Let’s be explicit about having a big tent. If activists want to engage for a candidate, let them,” Weingarten said. “That’s with the understanding that when it’s time to all get back together again, let’s do it and do one union-wide national endorsement.”
If other unions go a different route, however, and get behind Biden on the early side ― perhaps some among the building trades, which also have many conservative members ― that could change the wait-and-see calculus of more liberal unions that might prefer a more progressive candidate. In other words, organized labor is hardly a monolith, and the endorsement process could get fractious in the coming months.
According to Weingarten, the more circumspect approach her union plans for 2020 doesn’t necessarily mean that the American Federation of Teachers will wait until a de facto nominee emerges from the cluttered field to make an endorsement. As she noted, “In every campaign, you either chase the race or you shape it.”