Politics

Biden looks to union leaders for support as he seeks to reassure worried Democrats

WASHINGTON — (AP) — President Joe Biden met Wednesday with the executive council of the AFL-CIO, America’s largest federation of trade unions, to shore up support from a critical constituency as he beats back continued calls to step aside in the 2024 campaign.

"I think of you as my domestic NATO — not a joke," the 81-year-old Democrat told the crowd gathered at headquarters.

Hours later in the Oval Office, when a reporter asked him about an opinion piece written by George Clooney in which the actor implored Biden to leave the 2024 race, the president responded with "AFL-CIO!" paused, pumped his fists and added, "Go, go, go."

The AFL-CIO said the president has been booked to attend the meeting for more than a year, but his participation now involves much higher scrutiny after his weak debate performance against Donald Trump raised fears about his ability to compete in November's election. His sit-down with union officials also overlaps with the NATO summit in Washington, where Biden is navigating geopolitics with other world leaders.

Biden spoke with a handheld mic and no teleprompter in sight. He thanked the union leaders for their support, and outlined his plans for the future seeking to cast aside doubt over his reelection campaign. Biden is close to many union leaders who were in room, and considers AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler to be a personal friend.

“I said I’m going to be the most pro-union president in American history,” Biden told the cheering crowd. “Well, guess what? I am.”

In announcing Biden, Shuler told the room he has supported jobs, manufacturing and created good union jobs in clean energy. She flat-out told the president that he had the union's support.

“You’ve always had our back — we have your back,” Shuler said to the president.

The council is composed of more than 50 officials from the unions that compose the AFL-CIO, with the group representing 12.5 million union members.

A person familiar with the meeting said it reflected some of the wrangling among Democrats about Biden. One union leader pushed Biden to do more to show he's a fighter, while the head of the North America's Building Trades Unions said the Democrats calling for Biden to step down didn't know how to fight tough. The person insisted on anonymity to discuss the closed-door gathering.

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain, who Biden had actively courted during last year's strikes, was not recognized to speak while Biden was in the room. But he later pushed Biden's team to explain their plans for beating Trump.

So far, the unions are sticking with the Biden administration, despite widespread fears that his age handicaps his candidacy after his shaky performance in the June 27 debate. The AFL-CIO said Thursday that Biden's “fighting spirit” was on full display in the back and forth with union leaders.

Still, some statements of support are also worded diplomatically to suggest a degree of flexibility in case Biden chooses to drop out — saying they back the Biden-Harris administration and not just Biden personally.

The AFL-CIO said it unanimously voted on Thursday to "reaffirm" its backing of “President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the leadership of the most pro-union administration in our lifetimes.”

After Biden was interviewed by ABC News last week in the aftermath of his poor debate, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, posted on X: “Biden is an incredible President and tonight we saw that he’s on top of the details. He has my support and we’re ready to keep working for Biden-Harris to win in November.”

Some union leaders have been more targeted in their support for Biden and his continued candidacy.

United Steelworkers International President David McCall said before Wednesday's meeting that his union “proudly supports” Biden, saying that his “record of delivering for working people stands for itself.”

Kenneth Cooper, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, was also firmly behind Biden, saying that his union members “couldn't ask for a stronger advocate.”

Wednesday's meeting was a test of whether Biden's emphasis on policy and loyalty to Democratic constituencies such as unions can overcome doubts about his candidacy.

Over the course of his term, Biden has tied his administration to the idea that labor unions built the middle class. He visited a picket line during the auto strikes, backed the steelworkers union in objecting to Nippon Steel taking over U.S. Steel, saved pensions for union workers as part of his pandemic aid and sided with unions on a new rule to make more workers eligible for overtime pay.

Biden is so mindful of union workers that he recently canceled a speech planned for the conference of the National Education Association in Philadelphia after the union's staff announced a strike and formed a picket line.

One person familiar with the labor movement's thinking said there is an acknowledgment that Biden lost some ground among voters after the debate, but the unions have found that one-on-one conversations about Biden's agenda are mattering more to members and their families than his age and health. Their pitch is that Biden's agenda has directly helped union workers while Trump's plans could leave them worse off.

The AFL-CIO has raised 42 specific objections to Trump’s time as president from 2017 to 2021. It noted that the Republican, who recently proposed making tips paid to workers tax-free, had also as president implemented a proposal to let bosses pocket their employees’ tips, among other concerns about his tax cuts and efforts to restrict unionization.

Trump has also made a play for union members, having met in January with officials in the Teamsters Union and saying afterward that although Republicans generally don't get backing from organized labor, "in my case it's different because I've employed thousands of Teamsters and I thought we should come over and pay our respects."

The former president has portrayed himself as supporting blue-collar workers, with the Teamsters president Sean O'Brien later saying that there's "no doubt" that Trump enjoys some support from union members. O'Brien is scheduled to speak at the Republican National Convention next week in Milwaukee at Trump's invitation.

In 2020, AP VoteCast found that 16% of voters came from union households and 56% of them supported Biden. Biden and Trump essentially split non-union households in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, meaning that the Democrat's edge with union households was likely a critical factor in his victory.

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