Biden returning to union roots as 2024 campaign gears up

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden opened his 2020 presidential run at a Pittsburgh union hall, declaring, “I’m a union man. Period.” As he gears up for reelection, the president’s first political rally is being held at a union gathering on the other side of Pennsylvania, punctuating just how much Biden is counting on labor support to carry him to a second term — especially in a critical battleground state.

The symmetry is no accident. Rallying labor activists on Saturday at Philadelphia’s convention center can help Biden’s campaign spark enthusiasm and tap early organizing muscle. That may eventually boost Democratic voter turnout in the city’s suburbs and other key parts of Pennsylvania, which in 2020 helped him flip the state where Biden was born from Donald Trump.

“It speaks to this president’s visceral understanding that, when the labor movement in the United States is strong, the economy and our democracy are strong,” said Mary Kay Henry, international president of the 2-million-member Service Employees International Union. “He sees the role that working people and unions play in everything that he’s trying to make happen.”

Many of the country’s top unions, including the AFL-CIO, American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, announced Friday their endorsements of Biden’s 2024 campaign — the first time the groups have done so in a coordinated manner and this early in the presidential election cycle.

“We wanted to have all of the unions onboard and making a very strong statement,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and head of the AFL-CIO’s political committee, who pushed for the coordinated endorsements. “We’re going to hit the ground running and make it clear that all of labor is supportive of the president, and we’re going to do what is necessary to get him reelected.”

The announcement was similar to one Wednesday night, when top environmental and climate groups teamed up for a joint endorsement of Biden’s reelection.

Biden has used executive actions to promote worker organizing, personally cheered unionization efforts at corporate giants like Amazon and authorized federal funding to aid union members’ pensions. He’s also traveled the country, trumpeting how union labor is building bridges and improving train tunnels as part of the bipartisan, $1.1 trillion public works package Congress passed in 2021.

Though the number of workers belonging to a union has risen, overall union membership rates nationwide fell to an all-time low in 2022. The country’s largest unions have nonetheless built sprawling get-out-the-vote efforts, which Biden is counting on to help turn out his supporters in pivotal swing states.

Still, the White House’s relationship with labor has occasionally been tested, such as in December when some union activists criticized Biden for signing legislation preventing a nationwide rail strike.

The United Auto Workers said last month that it wasn’t immediately endorsing Biden’s reelection campaign due to concerns over the administration’s efforts to transition the U.S. into a nation reliant on electric vehicles. Biden supporters attribute the holdout to the union’s new leadership, which is taking a more confrontational posture ahead of bargaining sessions with the major auto companies.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who leads the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said “we still have a lot of time right now between now and the election” and that the auto worker union will likely endorse Biden’s reelection eventually.

“He’s clearly, probably, the most pro-union president we’ve had in a very long time, if ever,” Peters said.

Meanwhile, ongoing strikes have sometimes complicated the administration’s messaging.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has given conflicting comments on whether the administration weighs in on strikes that are in progress, saying in early May that “we don’t speak to an ongoing strike” when asked about Hollywood writers, yet offering support earlier this month to striking journalists at the Gannett newspaper chain.

The White House press office also apologized last week for crossing a digital picket line by referencing in a news release coverage from the news outlet Insider, where reporters are striking.

Biden nonetheless frequently addresses union gatherings and seems to revel in doing so. Though Saturday is his first campaign rally, mere hours after he announced that he was seeking reelection in April, the president made an official visit to the North America’s Building Trades Unions Legislative Conference in Washington and declared, “I make no apologies for being labeled the most pro-union president in American history.”

His economic message can also resonate with non-union members. Charlotte Valyo, Democratic Party chairwoman of Chester County in Philadelphia’s suburbs, which Biden carried comfortably in 2020.

“There are issues that are universal, regardless of socioeconomic status, or whether you’re in the suburbs or the cities or rural areas,” Valyo said. But she also said that the top issue among Chester County voters was defense of abortion rights after the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to an abortion last summer.

“Roe v. Wade is huge,” Valyo said.

Even as Biden won major endorsements from union leadership in 2020, meanwhile, some rank-and-file members supported Trump. Biden won the support of about six in 10 union members then, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the national electorate. That’s a healthy, but not commanding, margin.

Brent Booker, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represents mostly construction and energy sector workers and endorsed Biden last week, said that a key reason the union announced it was backing Biden so early was to ensure its members know how much his administration has accomplished, especially with the public works law.

“We saw what 2016 to 2020 looked like and those policies — or lack thereof — for our membership,” Booker said. Noting that Trump is again running for president, he added, “If it is Biden vs. Trump part two, I can point to: ‘What did the Trump administration do on infrastructure? And what did the Biden administration do on infrastructure?'”

Henry also noted that her union “had some small percentage of members that were for Trump” in the past. But she said the group has worked to counter that with ongoing messaging on union websites, through social medial campaigns and field staff work and even via paper leaflets — and that such efforts continue during canvassing this summer.

She said Biden’s pro-labor reelection message is a strong one, but also cautioned that the president, when he speaks to voters, refrain from against getting “bogged down in the recitation of accomplishment” and instead makes clear “how those accomplishments are going to make a difference in people’s everyday lives.”

“Talking about how he understands that, for the vast majority of the American people, there’s still a lot of struggle to make ends meet,” Henry said, “and that he’s tried to use his first four years in office to intervene in that struggle.”