Biden to workers: ‘Wall Street didn’t build this country. You did.’
Vice President Joe Biden, left, is greeted by AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka, before he speaks to a crowd before the annual Labor Day parade on Monday, Sept. 7, 2015, in Pittsburgh. This year, under the conditions of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden and Trumka participated in a joint Zoom conference on Labor Day. | Keith Srakocic / AP

HARRISBURG, Pa.—With AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka beaming while looking on, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden used a Labor Day joint Zoom appearance to reiterate his strong and public pitch to unionists to support him in this fall’s election.

“If there’s one thing the pandemic has done, it’s made people realize you’re the people who keep America going,” he declared. “Wall Street did not build this country. You did. And now people finally get it.”

“I’ve never been afraid to say the word ‘union.’…You’ll hear it in the White House” if he wins the presidency away from current Republican occupant Donald Trump. And Biden made it clear that worker rights, and specifically pro-worker labor law reform, would be a top legislative priority of the Biden presidency.

Whether he can achieve that is another matter. To some extent, it depends on factors outside Biden’s control should he win the White House, including intense business and ideological campaigning against it—as occurred a decade ago—and whether Biden keeps the cause on his front burner.

As Barack Obama’s vice president, and at Obama’s request, he pushed that labor law reform, the Employee Free Choice Act, aside in favor of lobbying lawmakers to enact the Affordable Care Act.

By contrast, Biden said of Trump that under the GOPer’s watch, “There are 30 million more people out of work and 20 million have lost their health care. And now he says he’ll gut Social Security” by abolishing payroll tax collections that fund it, a move the system’s independent actuary predicts could leave the system broke by 2023.

“What else can this guy do?” Biden asked.

Trumka reiterated organized labor’s enthusiastic support for Biden. “The coronavirus won’t defeat us. Unions will beat COVID-19.” “Right,” Biden interjected.

And with Gallup polls now saying more than 60% of workers look favorably on unions, and that millions would join up if they could, “If we want that to happen, we have to move heaven and earth to elect Joe Biden.”

Biden’s joint appearance with Trumka came after a day of speaking to workers in Harrisburg, Pa., a key swing state which Trump narrowly carried four years ago. He also narrowly won several other key Great Lakes industrial states. Both Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Biden’s running mate, and Trump V.P. Mike Pence spent Labor Day in another of them, Wisconsin. Pence toured an energy plant in LaCrosse.

Harris met workers at the Electrical Workers Local 494 hall in Milwaukee and talked about both the current depression, caused by necessary shutdowns to battle the coronavirus, after a private meeting with the family of Jacob Blake, the unarmed Black man a Kenosha police officer shot seven times in the back several weeks ago. Biden met the family privately in Kenosha the week before Labor Day. Both talked with the Blakes about the shooting and how to dismantle persistent long-standing U.S. racism.

And while Biden talked with and took questions from union workers, via video, Trump staged a wide-ranging press conference from the Rose Garden, mentioning workers only at the start. He claimed he met with several union leaders earlier in the day. He did not name them and reporters did not ask. The Trump White House has eliminated the Obama White House’s releases of names of meeting participants.

Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during a tour of the IBEW 494 training facility on Labor Day, Sept. 7, 2020, in Milwaukee. | Morry Gash / AP

Meanwhile, Biden reiterated his pro-worker platform—or most of it—in the 45-minute Zoom videoconference from Harrisburg.

His key point included strong support for passing the Protect The Right To Organize PRO Act, the most pro-worker comprehensive labor law reform since the original National Labor Relations Act of 1935. And he reiterated his pledges that the federal government would crack down hard on labor law-breaking firms and corporate honchos.

“If they are part of the problem,” Biden said of bosses, “they’re going to pay a personal price” of “jail time if they’re prominently involved in breaking the law.”

“And we’re going to make sure that when we spend tax dollars, we’ll spend them in America, on American workers” and at living wages.

“There used to be a basic bargain,” where workers and executives shared in prosperity through rising wages and an acceptable boss-worker salary ratio, Biden told barista Rebecca Vedrine of Unite Here Local 355 in Miami. “Now it’s 278-1.”

“You shouldn’t have to go it alone,” Biden said, pledging that as president he would be with workers all the way. “He [Trump] let federal contractors double offshoring. And he increased taxes on union workers,” by eliminating the itemized tax deduction for union dues.

He also promised Vedrine that he would advocate raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, “and stop employers from misclassifying workers” as independent contractors unprotected by labor laws, including the minimum wage and worker rights.

“I’d give independent contractors and gig economy workers the right to organize” under the PRO Act, Biden told Vedrine. “And I’d ban right to work laws,” Biden added. Left unsaid: The history of so-called RTW laws, dreamed up in the 1940s by Southern racist bosses to split Black workers from whites and now used by corporations to defund unions.

And Biden’s labor section of his website includes plans for an immediate Cabinet-level commission on “promoting union organizing and collective bargaining,” to report to him within 100 days. The promotion would include collective bargaining rights for government workers. Trump has spent his term trying to destroy their unions and rights.

That labor section includes not just raising the federal minimum wage, but extending it and other labor laws to currently exempt groups of workers—such as home health care workers and farmworkers, both not covered for originally racist reasons—and to tipped workers. Their federal minimum is $2.13 hourly and hasn’t risen since the early 1990s.

Bosses are supposed to make up the difference between that and tips they get until tipped workers, such as restaurant servers, reach the federal minimum. But bosses often short the workers through wage theft. Trump tried to let them steal a share of the tips, too. Congressional Democrats stopped that scheme.

Biden also made sure to praise workers’ bravery in battling the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed tens of thousands of front-line workers since it was officially declared on March 13. The 6.304 million who have tested positive for the virus and the 189,236 who have died include grocery workers, teachers, port truckers, and, especially, nurses.

“It did not have to be this way,” Biden declared. “And he [Trump] still doesn’t have a plan” for dealing with the pandemic’s toll. “What’ll he do? Nothing.”

“But on Day One, I’ll implement the national strategy I proposed in March,” including constant mask-wearing in public, free and frequent coronavirus testing and contact tracing, and “vaccine development free from politics.” Trump, at his press conference, kept touting the possibility—which public health experts discount—of developing an anti-viral vaccine by the end of the year. “You know which day,” he told reporters.

The normally low-key Biden got mad at Trump only once, raising his voice when slamming the president’s disparagement of veterans and U.S. war dead, as the Atlantic reported in extensive interviews with Trump ex-officials. “He’ll never understand you,” Biden said of the workers. “You live by a code of duty, honor, country,” which is the U.S. Army’s motto. “He lives by a code of lies, greed, and selfishness.”

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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 a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).