The politically powerful International Association of Fire Fighters has a long and warm relationship with the former vice president, stretching back to his early days in the Senate in the 1970s. Even though the 2020 Democratic field is only just taking shape, the head of the firefighters union is making his personal allegiances clear.
“Oh, I’m more than hoping ― I’m doing everything I can to ‘Run, Joe, Run,’” said Harold Schaitberger, the union’s general president since 2000.
Unions are a pillar of the Democratic base and can be a strong influence in primary elections, if they choose to weigh in. During the 2016 election cycle, the IAFF decided to hold off on an endorsement during the primary after Biden announced he wouldn’t run. In the end, the union declined to publicly back the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, during the general election, saying her support wasn’t broad enough within the union.
But it’s likely that the IAFF, which represents 316,000 workers, will be all-in this year if Biden files papers to seek the nomination to run against President Donald Trump.
Biden is slated to deliver the keynote address at the union’s conference in Washington next week. Schaitberger met personally with Biden in January. While the union head said he didn’t want to get into the details of their discussion, Schaitberger said he told the former vice president the same thing he’s been telling him since 2015: The guy needs to throw his hat in the ring.
“We really think that we need someone like Joe Biden who will take that center-progressive ― but center ― lane, and who will be the candidate who can speak to workers [in] states like Wisconsin and Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania, who can speak to the real working class,” Schaitberger said.
“That working class used to be dependable Democratic supporters who to some degree, over time, have not been as committed,” he added.
The union’s affinity for Biden says a lot about the maybe-candidate’s appeal to centrists in a growing field, and the broader debate on the left about who’s best equipped to take on Trump: a deep progressive who excites the base, or a moderate who can appeal to conservative and middle-of-the-road voters turned off by the Trump presidency.
Even though he hasn’t declared a run, Biden already enjoys a comfy head start for the Democratic nomination in most polls, handily leading nearly a dozen declared or potential candidates.
The IAFF’s membership probably skews more to the middle than a lot of other big public-sector unions known for their progressive politics. The union’s 2017 conference in Washington included speeches not only from Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), but Fox News host Tucker Carlson and then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. Like the building trades unions, the IAFF has relationships that cross the political aisle.
Although the union hasn’t done any internal polling this cycle, Schaitberger said his membership is “broad and wide,” and has always embraced Amtrak Joe’s “pragmatic approach.”
Most IAFF members also would share Biden’s demographic profile. Firefighters in the U.S. tend to be white men. Around 5 percent are women, and roughly 17 percent are either African-American, Latino or Asian, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The political ground on the left has shifted significantly since Biden and President Barack Obama left office in early 2017. As HuffPost’s Zach Carter put it this week, “Joe Biden’s biggest 2020 problem is Joe Biden.” With talk of Medicare for All and a wave of young women of color claiming Democratic seats in Congress, Biden can come off like a political relic from a different party.
Schaitberger argued that’s all the more reason to get behind a Biden candidacy.
“The party has shifted in several ways too far to the left,” he said. “My membership, I believe, represents a pretty clear political landscape of the nation. I’ve got Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, and lots down the middle. … This kind of a membership … does respond to Joe’s voice.”
I’m more than hoping ― I’m doing everything I can to ‘Run, Joe, Run.’ IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger
Union endorsements typically aren’t done by a membership vote, and of course not all members end up thrilled with them. The IAFF, like a lot of unions, determines which candidates to support through its executive board, of which Schaitberger is a member. If Biden declares his candidacy and the union quickly gets behind him, Schaitberger will be reminding members of Biden’s support for their priorities over the years.
The union leader first got to know Biden when he was working in the union’s legislative shop in Washington in 1977, and Biden was serving his first term as a senator from Delaware. Over the years, Biden backed up the union when it came to public-safety officer death benefits, funding for emergency medical services and collective bargaining rights for firefighters, Schaitberger said.
Of course, there are plenty of other potential Democratic candidates who’ve been loyal supporters of unions and workers over the years.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has walked picket lines for decades. Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) browbeats companies just about every week for busting unions or offshoring work. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) keeps worker bargaining power near the center of her vision of a fair economy. And just last month, Harris re-introduced her bill to extend overtime protections to farm workers.
But according to Schaitberger, there’s no substitute for a 40-plus-year friendship.
“We’re really big on loyalty,” he said. “If you know anything about us, that’s our fundamental principle: If you’ve been with us, we’re going to be with you.”