Former Vice President Joe Biden leaned hard into his long history of support for and from organized labor on Tuesday, telling hundreds of union members in Philadelphia he has never let them down.
Biden was one of six Democratic presidential candidates pitching themselves to union voters, among them Sens. Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar.
“The bad news is I’ve been around a long time," Biden said at the Convention Center. "The good news is I’ve been around a long time. You all know me.”
Biden described an America economy that pits wealthy corporations against unions and their organizers. He vowed to make chief executive officers at larger companies personally pay a $50,000 fine for each instance where employees are prevented from joining a union.
“Folks, we can do without Wall Street," Biden said. “Wall Street did not build America. Ordinary middle-class America built America.”
The former senator from Delaware used the event, hosted by the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, to draw a distinction with some of his Democratic competitors on health care. Biden said his policy would allow union members to keep private health-care plans won through collective bargaining.
“You’ve broken your neck to get it," Biden said. “You’ve given up wages to keep it. And no plan should be able to take it away.”
The crowd was — mostly — with Sen. Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont drew the warmest response of the day, with many in the crowd standing and chanting his name, waving phones to take pictures as he took the stage.
Like Biden, Sanders ran through his legislative history of siding with unions. He added unrelenting attacks on “crooks on Wall Street” and President Donald Trump.
“Together we are going to end a corrupt political system that allows billionaires to buy elections.," Sanders said. "Together we are going to create an economy that works for all of us.”
That resonated with most of the crowd, but also drew a heckler when Sanders called Trump a pathological liar, fraud, and racist. “You’re an a—!” a man shouted from the back of the room. He was soon hushed with a “Bernie” chant. “Thank you,” the senator said.
Sanders promised a $15-per-hour minimum wage, to crack down on what he called price-fixing in the pharmaceutical industry and to create millions of jobs by switching to clean energy to fight climate change.
“What the scientists are telling us is, we are playing for the future of our planet," Sanders said.
Lesser-known candidates made their pitches to polite applause
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang said his flagship campaign proposal — universal basic income — is rooted in the labor movement.
Giving $1,000 a month to everyone more than 18 years old, he said, would help unions negotiate better terms for members in a time when “labor is losing on an epic scale,” as automation replaces human workers.
“Right now they know you can’t go months without a salary,” Yang said.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed reversing federal tax incentives for companies that automate work sites.
"Make them pay for it. A robot tax,” de Blasio said.
Billionaire activist Tom Steyer decried what he called a “40-year war on organized labor, starting with Ronald Reagan.”
He cited a “red state game plan” where conservatives cut taxes and education funding while attacking organized labor.” Like other candidates, he pledged to make it easier to unionize workplaces.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota accused Trump of making big promises in 2016 to unions on infrastructure funding that he did not keep and knocked him for blaming others when plant closings harm workers or tariffs hurt farmers.
“We don’t need a whiner in the White House,” she said. “People don’t need someone who is whining all the time, because I know their lives are harder than Donald Trump’s.”
A number of other candidates, among them Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, did not attend.
Philly unions urged to ‘keep your powder dry’
Philadelphia AFL-CIO president Pat Eiding opened Tuesday’s event by urging union members to immediately tune in to presidential politics to learn about the candidates and issues.
“Not January. Not after the primary. But right now,” Eiding said.
Tuesday’s event grew out of concern Eiding expressed in May at a meeting of local union leaders after Biden formally announced his candidacy with a rally at a union hall in Pittsburgh, followed by a fund-raiser at the Philadelphia home of Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen.
Eiding said then “this whole Joe Biden thing kind of disturbs me a little bit," referring to an early groundswell of support for the new candidate with the best name recognition, who quickly became the party’s front-runner. He noted at the time that union support was as important as deep-pocketed donors.
Biden exacerbated the concern by dragging his feet on committing to appear at Tuesday’s event. He wanted a stand-alone meeting with the union members, which was denied.
Eiding also expressed concerns that nearly 200,000 union members in his council supported Trump in the 2016 presidential election, saying they were “fooled by his message.”
The Cooperative Congressional Election Study, carried out by a consortium of 99 universities, estimated that about 38 percent of union members nationally voted for Trump four years ago, based on its postelection polling.
Looking back to 2016 and ahead to 2020
The national AFL-CIO, with more than 12 million members, backed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, though Trump drew a sizable vote from the ranks.
Eiding, in an op-ed published in The Inquirer on Sunday, noted that a recent Gallup Poll found public support for labor unions at a nearly 50-year high. The forum was part of an effort to “tip the balance of power back toward everyday people,” Eiding wrote.
The national AFL-CIO on Thursday said it will hold a candidate forum next spring to “ensure members have the opportunity to meet and assess” their choices for president. National president Richard Trumka, while publicly issuing a questionnaire for the candidates, declared, “The labor movement is entering this process with a higher bar than ever before.”