The public image of President Biden’s « Union Joe » character is based in large part on his long-standing affiliations with unions representing police officers, firefighters and construction workers.
But the modern labor movement gathering in Philadelphia on Saturday to support Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign is younger, more diverse, and has far more women than the union stereotype Biden has embraced during the decades he’s built his political identity.
« You think of it as the guy with a cigar, and it’s just not that, » said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. « I’m sure there are still dudes with cigars, but there are countless other people in a multigenerational, multiracial cacophony of people who are united by a zealous struggle for a better life. »
While today’s labor movement is demographically more in line with the Democratic Party, the rising share of young people and people of color means union members may be less familiar with — and more skeptical about — Biden’s record.
Biden’s campaign and the union leaders who support it — the AFL-CIO and 17 other unions – celebrated the first endorsement as a triumph of union unity for the president.
Julie Chávez Rodríguez, Biden’s campaign manager, called it « an unprecedented show of solidarity and strength for our campaign. »
Less than two months after Biden launched his re-election bid, the approval reflects not only Biden’s popularity among union leaders, but also the reality that most union members do not associate Biden with pro-union legislation. unions that he signed into law.
« There’s a disconnect between all of Biden-Harris’s accomplishments and what information is coming onto the ground in communities, » said AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler. of legislation and regulations. It’s up to us to decode that and connect the dots to what’s happening in Washington. »
Before becoming president, Mr. Biden was a regular in Labor Day parades, especially in Pittsburgh, home to the largely white and male steelworkers’ unions that built much of western Pennsylvania, and where he kicked off the his 2020 campaign.
That race followed a defection by large numbers of union workers to the 2016 Donald J. Trump campaign, which had refocused the Republican Party in opposition to international free trade agreements championed by Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
This has helped Mr. Trump weed out traditionally Democratic union voters. When Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election, he won just 51 percent of votes from union families, while Mr. Trump won by huge margins among white working-class voters, according to exit polls at the time. Four years later, Mr. Biden took 56%. of union household votes, and union voters made up a slightly larger share of the electorate.
“The labor movement is changing, without a doubt. We have a younger, more diverse workforce,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and City Employees. “We are seeing a revitalization among young people and people of color who see they are being abused and have no a real place at the table ».
Mr. Biden and his administration have been more vocal than his Democratic predecessors in encouraging union organizing. Mr. Biden welcomed to the White House the millennial organizers of Amazon and Starbucks who have unionized parts of those companies.
Martin J. Walsh, Mr. Biden’s first labor secretary who is now the executive director of the professional hockey players’ union, said the early endorsements of organized labor were clear attempts to give union leaders more time to push the union forward. case of Mr. Biden to their members .
“Having so many unions open so early in the process tells you that unions are consolidating their membership early and working their membership early, so they don’t have a repeat of what happened in 2016,” Walsh said.
Among the younger union leaders is Roland Rexha, the secretary-treasurer of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, which represents seafarers, including Staten Island Ferry employees. Mr. Rexha, who at 41 is the youngest member and the only Muslim the executive council of the AFL-CIOhe said it can be difficult to sell Mr. Biden to a group that is about three-quarters white men, a group with which Mr. Trump has won majority support.
“Most unions do a good job of trying to explain to members why they need to support the people who support them,” Rexha said. « It’s something that, as a leadership, we’ve sometimes had a hard time conveying to them. »
Broad union support for Mr. Biden on Saturday masks some discontent with the president among organized workers. The United Auto Workers denied approval over concerns over the White House-backed EV transition. There have been significant complaints among union groups that on the day Mr. Biden launched his campaign, he spoke to the building union, a group whose members are seen in the business world as less reliable Democrats.
And then there’s the fact that Mr. Biden’s much-touted infrastructure legislation will largely benefit construction workers, a group far more likely to be male and vote Republican than the rest of the organized labor universe.
« There is real progress, ironically, for construction workers, probably half of whom voted for Trump twice, » said Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America who was a longtime adviser to the senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
« The message is as good as it’s been in 50 years or more, but there has to be results. »