After talking Ukraine War, Biden campaigns hard at Building Trades confab
Biden touts legislative accomplishments at Building Trades legislative conference. | AFL-CIO Building Trades Twitter

WASHINGTON—After talking about the increasing number of allegations of Russian atrocities in Ukraine and subsequent U.S. action against Vladimir Putin and the Russian government, President Biden virtually roared into full campaign mode in addressing more than 3,000 people at the North America’s Building Trades Unions’ legislative conference here.

As closing speaker for the confab, Biden was interrupted many times by cheers and applause on April 6, not just when he listed pro-worker achievements of his administration, but also when he announced a big mass transit grant at the end—and in between rattled off the union jobs his Infrastructure and Jobs Act have produced and will create.

And Biden drew cheers for his full-throated endorsement of unions. He highlighted it by leaning into the microphone, pointing a conspiratorial finger forward, and growling “And by the way, Amazon, here we come!” after the independent Amazon Labor Union’s big union recognition win at the monster retailer and distributor’s JFK8 warehouse win on Staten Island. That drew even more laughs and cheers.

Biden’s speech came as his negative poll ratings still outdo his positive ones, producing a drag on Democratic hopes for retaining—or even expanding—their slim congressional majorities this fall. The Senate is tied: 50 Republicans face 48 Democrats and both independents. Democrats hold the House, 221-209 with five vacancies.

Democratic organizations often rely on foot soldiers from organized labor, including the building trades.  But inflation, and rising gasoline prices, Biden admitted, dampen enthusiasm, despite bright economic numbers—which Biden recited.

“Look, I know people are still hurting,” he conceded. “But our economy is not just on the mend, but it’s on the move.”

His big selling points were the five-year $1.2 trillion Infrastructure And Jobs Act, a key cause of the building trades, and the earlier American Rescue Act, designed to cushion the economic impact on workers and their families from the coronavirus-caused depression. The infrastructure act drew some GOP support. The rescue act got none.

“We can’t compete in the 21st century without building infrastructure,” Biden told the crowd, to more cheers. “We passed that infrastructure law, and now it’s no longer ‘Infrastructure Week,’ it’s ‘Infrastructure Decade.’”

And in the end, Biden announced he’d be issuing an executive order allotting $20.5 billion more of the infrastructure act’s money for new mass transit projects, to be built with union labor, which would reduce pollution and have components and materials “made in the U.S.A.”

“And remember those long lines of cars with people lined up just to get bags of groceries? Our American Rescue Plan helped 41 million people put food on their tables,” and it saved “four million who were on the verge of being evicted.”

Both the infrastructure law and the rescue act, he reminded the crowd, included strong worker protections, such as Davis-Bacon language and Project Labor Agreements. So would future legislation. So did his special White House Task Force on unionizing.

So would the Protect The Right To Organize Act, labor’s top legislative priority. “We want to make sure that choice” of whether or not to unionize “belongs to workers alone!” Biden declared. That bill, renamed for the late AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, is marooned by unanimous Senate GOP opposition and filibuster threats.

Biden’s speech also avoided some topics. He didn’t mention the Green New Deal by name. That’s a sore point of contention between building trades, who fear it would cost union jobs, and environmentalists.

And he said the nation must make child care affordable so working women, including construction women, can rejoin the labor force. But Biden didn’t mention his overall Build Back Better/reconciliation bill, stalled by a GOP Senate filibuster threat. It includes child care tax credits and money, too.

Instead, his big theme was adding up all the new jobs from the two pieces of legislation, including “320,000 new construction jobs last year,” which puts building trades employment—union and non-union combined—at a level higher than before the crash.

“That wasn’t all we did,” he added. Biden then reminding listeners of another big rescue act win: Incorporating the Butch Lewis Act to set financially troubled multi-employer pension plans back on their financial feet without cutting benefits to current retirees or their heirs.

The key aid: Federal loan guarantees to plans that create viable packages for their own recovery. Many of those multi-employer plans cover construction workers.

And that’s quite a contrast, Biden declared, with what his predecessor—“What’s his name? He even skipped the inauguration,” Biden said, to laughter—did: The $1.7 trillion tax cut targeted the rich and corporations.

Biden’s trying to undo that, too. Both his Build Back Better “reconciliation” bill, halted by the GOP filibuster threat, and proposals in his latest budget would close tax loopholes for those firms and millionaires, and restore a top tax rate on the rich of 39.6%.

“There’s no reason someone making $10 million a year pays at a lower tax rate than a” family with two wage-earners, “a teacher and a firefighter. We’ve got to have everyone pay their fair share,” he said. That includes the ultrarich and “the 55 Fortune 500 corporations which paid zero in income taxes last year. We can do this without raising taxes on anyone making under $400,000 a year,” he said, repeating a campaign pledge.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.