Powerful Building Trades Unions back Biden for re-election
President Joe Biden talks with NABTU President Sean McGarvey after speaking to the North America's Building Trade Union National Legislative Conference, Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in Washington. | Evan Vucci/AP

WASHINGTON—The North American Building Trades Unions fired a shot heard across the nation this week when they gave a ringing endorsement to the re-election campaign of President Biden. The move was particularly significant because the last time around significant percentages of workers in the various building trades backed Donald Trump, who large numbers of union members now see as having betrayed their vital economic and political interests.

The April 23-24 conference of more than 3,000 people heard from a parade of officeholders, capped off by President Joe Biden, who won the official endorsement of the NABTU. The endorsement could well result in legions of construction workers going out to stump the streets for Biden and to inveigh against the efforts of Trump to get back into the White House this fall.

The laudatory words from NABTU President Sean McGarvey assured the attendees, media, and the nation that precisely that is what will happen now that Biden has their endorsement. A hard-hitting NABTU television ad, shown to the packed house, had tough words for ex-President Trump who, at the time, was sitting in court, on trial for criminal attempts to manipulate election results. An even harder-hitting Joe Biden took the stage after the ad was shown.

McGarvey, the ad’s narrator, often talked straight to the camera. “Donald Trump is incapable of running anything…. And God help us if he gets anywhere near that White House in the future,” he declared.

Biden himself, in many sharp jabs against Trump—by name, for once—sounded the same contrasts. He lauded unions and workers and put what he called his pro-worker record up against Trump’s “failed promises.” The crowd responded with repeated cheers, applause, and laughter at Biden’s taunts.

The president even voiced a class contrast, of the “Scranton values”—Biden’s birthplace—of hard work with Trump’s “Mar-a-Lago values” as “competing visions of America.”

“We all grew up with folks who sort of looked down on us because of what our dads did,” Biden reminisced. “People like Donald Trump learned a different lesson. He learned the best way to get rich is inherit. He learned that paying taxes is something working people did, not him. He learned that telling people ‘You’re fired’ was something to laugh about.

“Not in my household. Not in my neighborhood…Especially being fired, because you had no protection.”

Repeated his vow

Biden repeated his vow to push and sign the Protect The Right To Organize Act. That measure, labor’s top legislative priority, would give workers more labor law protection than they now have against corporate exploitation.

“I guess that’s how you look at the world from Mar-a-Lago, where Trump and his rich friends embrace the same failed trickle-down policies that have failed working-class families and union families for over 40 years,” the president said.

“But if you grew up where we grew up, nobody handed you anything. Being told you were fired wasn’t entertainment. It was devastating. It was a nightmare.

“And, folks, we all know people like Trump who look down on us, don’t we? We all know somebody we grew up with like that…When I look at the economy, I don’t see it through the eyes of Mar-a-Lago, I see it through the eyes of Scranton and working people like all of you and my family…My dad used to say not a whole hell of a lot trickled down on his kitchen table in that top-down policy.”

The building trades ad opens with the now-infamous Trump promise to a Fox “News” host that “I’ll be a dictator only on day one” if elected this fall in the rematch against Biden. Nobody believes a Trump dictatorship will stop only after next Inauguration Day.

“Donald Trump. He’s not a good man. He’s not a good person,” McGarvey then comes on screen to say. “He doesn’t care about anybody in this world except Donald Trump. That’s it. That’s all.” Then comes a video clip of Trump stalking his car with background words “a clear and present danger.”

Trump, of course, proved that charge when he ordered, aided, and abetted the Trumpite invasion, insurrection, and attempted coup d’etat at the U.S. Capitol just over three years ago. The ad does not include footage of the chaos and carnage there. It doesn’t need to; it shows other Trump chaos.

“Now he’s looking to get in that position again to exert revenge on people,” McGarvey continues. “I go all the way back to the 80s with Donald Trump. Trying to get his mug on page six of the New York Post. The only difference between Donald Trump of the 80s and Donald Trump of today is he feels totally free to let his dark side out, and it’s very very dark and very very dangerous for this country.”

Backing McGarvey’s ad statement is a video of police shooting tear gas at Black Lives Matter marchers and a still photo of Trump brandishing the Bible upside down in front of St. John’s Church in downtown D.C. “We can’t let our democracy that we’ve worked for and that we’ve cherished disintegrate with the wrong leader at the wrong time,” says McGarvey.

As if being a danger to the republic isn’t enough, McGarvey details Trump’s broken promises to the building trades.

“I can tell you he [Trump] personally committed to me that he was going to get these pensions fixed,” McGarvey said of the continuing saga over how to aid financially strapped multi-employer pension plans, which cover a large share of building trades workers. The financier-caused Great Recession sent those plans deep into the red, and some were close to insolvency.

False assurances

“He assured me ‘I’ll call Mitch’” McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, “’and tell him to put it in the bill. Is everybody gonna love me?’” McGarvey continues in the ad. “Yes, Mr. President, fix the pensions, everybody’s gonna love ya. Well, that was wasted breath. There’s lots of other things put in that bill. There’s tax cuts for rich people put in that bill.

“Donald Trump promised infrastructure. Every year, he promised infrastructure. Donald Trump was not interested in any of the policy that goes along with being president of the United States. Donald Trump was interested in the pomp and circumstance—the plane, the helicopter.”

But McGarvey is aware that he faces a political problem among his members, which he discussed with MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and other staffers on Morning Joe, included in the convention video. When Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, the Republican won almost half of union and family votes in the industrial Midwest. That included 52% for Trump in Ohio, then still a swing “purple” state.

“Quite honestly, we’re not going to talk to every American who supports Donald Trump, and every one of our members who supports Donald Trump,” McGarvey admitted. “We’re going to concentrate on our members who we can have a conversation with and explain to them the facts.

“Give them the projects that they’re working on, the projects where they can feed their family today, and give them how that project came about.” McGarvey first estimated that persuadable share at 10-15%, but later revised it upwards to 15-20%. Those are the workers NABTU will talk to and the workers he hopes will discuss the issues “around their kitchen tables.”

“It came about through three monumental pieces of legislation. After he saved our pensions,” Biden is “now creating the biggest infrastructure boom this country has ever seen,” McGarvey said on the show.

“That’s the conversations we’re having. We’ll have them one-on-one. We’ll have them in the key states. We’ve already started, we’re laying out the facts and seeing the results.”

The infrastructure legislation’s language also encourages—indeed mandates—Project Labor Agreements and Davis-Bacon prevailing wages on almost all federally funded construction. That language is important, McGarvey said. “My members are going to have many, many of those jobs,” which he termed “good, family-sustaining jobs.” Biden reminded the crowd of that, too.

The Building Trades’ Biden endorsement, which McGarvey announced in his keynote address, was more positive but also jabbed at Trump’s tax cuts for the rich and Trump’s inaction on infrastructure.

The three big-ticket infrastructure laws Biden pushed through Congress “brought life-changing, opportunity-creating, generational change focused on the working men and women of this great country who have for far too long been clamoring for a leader to finally keep their word.

“His regulatory actions to protect and uplift working families, strengthening Davis-Bacon prevailing wage protections, his independent contractor rule fighting worker misclassification and repealing the disastrous and misguided” apprenticeships run by cut-rate non-union contractors, “are wins for workers, fair and honest contractors, and American taxpayers.

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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.