Big union crowd says it is starting now on 2024 election campaign
President Joe Biden poses on stage during a political rally at the Philadelphia Convention Center in Philadelphia, June 17, 2023. | Joe Lamberti/AP

PHILADELPHIA—Interrupted repeatedly by chants of “Let’s go Joe!” and “Four more years!” from an energized crowd of 1,500-2,000 unionists, Democratic President Joe Biden welcomed the endorsement of almost all of the nation’s unions at a rousing speech in Philadelphia. It was the earliest presidential endorsement in AFL-CIO history.

Biden’s speech was heavy on the improved economy and heavy on comparing today with the economic and medical disaster—the coronavirus pandemic—he confronted on entering the Oval Office. Biden didn’t mention disruptive social issues his Republican foes use to divide and conquer voters, especially white working-class voters.

Unionists were enthusiastic, but with one caution: Those interviewed, from leaders such as AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler and Teachers President Randi Weingarten to rank-and-file activists, agreed Biden’s achievement-oriented message has yet to resonate with many voters, and that as the nation’s unionists it is their responsibility to help make it hum.

And Biden didn’t mention the Donald Trump-incited Jan. 6, 2021, invasion, insurrection and attempted coup d’état at the U.S. Capitol. Indeed, Biden never uttered Trump’s name. And though nobody seemed to notice, Biden also didn’t mention the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act, the pro-worker sweeping reform of labor law that is organized labor’s #1 congressional priority—and that’s a first.

Biden’s oration—and his recitation of a strong pro-labor and economic record—won’t be enough to overcome the organized and well-funded combination of caterwauling about so-called “social issues” and outright lies by the radical right and their corporate puppeteers. “We’ve got a story to tell. We’ve got a record to run on,” the president said.

So unionists from Shuler on down said it’ll take a lot of education to turn voters away from those distractions and bring the rest of the country along to focus on nuts and bolts.

Intend to prove it

And the nation’s unions intend to provide it.  They’ll be the teachers they say.

“This is absolutely an early show of support. Unity is important because of all the work he has done,” Shuler told half-a-dozen reporters who covered Biden’s speech.

“He is from the top sending a message that workers, and building from the bottom up, are more important than ever before,” Shuler added. Just over a year ago, Biden addressed the AFL-CIO convention—which had just elected Shuler and Fred Redmond as federation leaders—there.

But while the activists in the hall, including from major non-AFL-CIO unions such as the Service Employees, the National Education Association and even the Carpenters, were cheering and enthusiastic, U.S. history is often marked by general indifference to presidential politics until the last few months before each November election in an even-numbered year.

The old adage was that voters don’t pay attention to the presidential election until after baseball’s World Series is over. With huge shares of voters now casting ballots early and with the Series often straying into early November, that’s not as true as it once was. That means campaigns must adjust accordingly, getting to voters long before.

Shuler and everyone else interviewed plan to put the old mindset to rest. Attention to politics, election-year-round and before, is their goal.

“Unions are the anchor in every community,” Shuler explained to People’s World afterwards. “Once we get our members engaged,” they’ll listen, she added. “We’re shifting our politics to an organizing approach—engaging people on the issues and listening to their concerns and calculating our approach accordingly.”

“Trump and the others are creating division and disinformation,” Weingarten explained in an interview with Peoples World, when asked to put on her New York City civics teacher’s hat and say how to tutor the country. “When you have workers on the ground conversing with other working families” about issues they share, “that’s what’s going to do it.”

“We gotta work with the rest of the country and today starts our ground game” to do so, Redmond told Peoples World. He added the AFL-CIO has a goal of exceeding its 2022 mark of getting one million unionists active in politics.

Alan Suber, a Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union member from New York, elaborated that “people are paying attention,” once you engage them. “You have to educate them and teach them, because they do want to learn what’s going on,” Suber said.

“They want the facts” and it’ll be the union movement’s responsibility  to be a trusted messenger of facts and to counter those whom Suber called “the blowhards.”

“The best thing we can do is proactively getting the message to our members,” said Stephen Dodd, National Legislative Director for the Smart Union, the combination of the Sheet Metal Workers and the United Transportation Union.

“Our members are like every other human being,” he explained in an exclusive interview. They can be “taken in by propaganda.” It’s up to their union colleagues—whom they trust more than others—to get the facts to them by any way possible, especially via social media. “The days of the SMART magazine” as being the union’s prime communications vehicle “are over.”

Material to take out on the hustings

Biden gave the crowd what they wanted: Material to take out on the hustings. He also took a shot at Wall Street, saying to laughter that “If the investment bankers in this country went on strike tomorrow, no one would much notice in this room. No, think about this in a literal sense.

“But if this room didn’t show up for work tomorrow or Monday, the whole country would come to a grinding halt.

Biden’s speech distributed many facts. It was delayed as he visited the site of last week’s I-95 bridge collapse due to an oil tanker crash and fire in the northern section of Philadelphia.

In remarks there, Biden pledged full federal support “to move heaven and earth” and replace the bridge fast, using an immediate $3 million for cleanup and further funds from the Biden- and labor-supported $1.2 trillion infrastructure act to rebuild it. The collapse has snarled traffic and commerce along the entire Boston-Washington corridor.

“Union crews have been hard at work 24/7 since the crash,” Biden said at the site. “Operating Engineers, the Laborers, the Carpenters, Cement Finishers, Teamsters and the Ironworkers are going to help rebuild. And they’re doing it right now.”

In his speech downtown, Biden reminded the audience the entire infrastructure law requires well-paid jobs by union members, with project labor agreements. That brought a big cheer from building trades members in the audience. So did his reminder that his administration helped push through the Butch Lewis Act to establish a method “to save your pensions “in financially hard-hit multi-employer plans.

And Biden got further rousing cheers when he mentioned the CHIPS Act, to encourage “investment of $470 billion” in new microchip manufacturing plants in the U.S. The nation has also created 800,000 new factory jobs on his watch, even before those plants are built, Biden said. That too got more cheers, and the legislation was bipartisan, he noted.

Infrastructure wasn’t the only accomplishment Biden urged his listeners to tout on the campaign trail for the next year and a half. He repeated he’s a unifier, noting he successfully negotiated a debt ceiling compromise with Republicans which—he claimed—gave away little to their extremists.

Biden conveniently overlooked the almost unanimous bloc voting on any issue he pushes in Congress: Republicans against, Democrats for. The debt ceiling deal was the exception to the rule, as was CHIPS.

This Congress is split, as Republicans control the House, and the radical right and Trumpite “Freedom Caucus” controls the Republican Party. Their brainstorms, including re-imposing student debt payments, have already inspired several Biden vetoes.

Another sign of unity

In another sign of “unity,” Biden repeated his statement of the day before to a Democratic State Committee meeting in Greenwich, Conn., that “every single environmental group” and “every AFL-CIO union” has endorsed his re-election candidacy.

Green groups and some building trades unions have been at loggerheads over Biden’s fossil fuel phase-outs. Those qualms were absent in Philadelphia, as Biden lauded the green—and union—factory jobs new infrastructure plans will create.

“I came to this office with a theory and a plan,” Biden explained. Theory was to “end the trickle-down economics. Handing down 40 years of huge tax cuts for the wealthy” didn’t work. “There was not a lot of trickle down.

“All it had done was hollow out the middle class, blow up the deficit, ship jobs overseas, strip the dignity and pride and hope out of a community, one after another, all across America as the factories shut down.”

The one disappointment Biden voiced was when the right-wing House “Freedom” Caucus forced Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to “draw a line in the sand,” in McCarthy’s words, against repealing the Trump-GOP $2 trillion 2017 tax cuts for corporations and the rich.

Biden had to drop them from his debt ceiling talks with McCarthy, but vowed in his speech to bring them back, along with his increased taxes on the wealthy.

“How can it be fair when 55 of the wealthiest corporations in the U.S. paid zero?” Biden asked. “Big Oil took in $55 billion and got $30 billion in rebates. A thousand billionaires paid 8%” each, less than Fire Fighters or Teachers. “What do you pay?” came a shout from the crowd. “I pay a helluva lot more,” Biden replied. “So do you.”

Biden also gave the unionists a prediction for the future to take on the campaign trail. He declared what his administration did “in the last three years” in hauling the nation away from the economic abyss, combating the coronavirus, setting a course to battle climate change and enacting the new infrastructure law “have the power to transform this country for the next five decades.

“And guess who did it? You did it. Who’s going to do it? Union members.”

And that’s why, though Biden put this statement at the start of his speech, he declared: “I’m more honored by this endorsement than you can imagine. Coming this early, it’ll make a difference in this campaign.

“You know, there are a lot of politicians in this country who can’t say the word ‘union,’” Biden said, to applause. “But you know I’m not one of them.  I’m proud to say the word.  I’m proud to be the most pro-union president in American history.  I promised you I would be.

“But what I’m really proud about–what I’m really proud about is being re-elected the most pro-union president in history,” he declared, to applause.

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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 tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.