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Courting working-class voters, Kamala Harris campaigns for Biden at SEIU convention in Philly

“We are protecting the sacred right to organize because we know when unions are strong, America is strong,” Harris told the union’s convention.

Vice President Kamala Harris delivers the keynote speech at the SEIU's convention in Philadelphia.
Vice President Kamala Harris delivers the keynote speech at the SEIU's convention in Philadelphia.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

As Vice President Kamala Harris took the stage for the keynote speech at the annual convention of the Service Employees International Union, the crowd in Philadelphia chanted: “Four more years.”

“We’ll do it together,” Harris told the gathering of labor leaders Tuesday before launching into a speech focused on President Joe Biden’s administration’s efforts to partner with the powerful labor union, and the stakes of the 2024 election.

“We are protecting the sacred right to organize because we know when unions are strong, America is strong,” she said.

The visit was Harris’ second trip to the Philadelphia area in May, a sign of the region’s crucial role in the presidential race. She visited Montgomery County earlier this month for an event focused on reproductive rights.

Why is the SEIU significant to the Biden campaign?

Harris’ speech came just after the SEIU, among the most diverse unions in the country, elected its first Black president, April Verrett. The former treasurer-secretary for the organization, Verrett was elected president on the first day of the three-day convention.

The SEIU represents more than 2 million workers across the country across a broad range of fields, including health care, public service, child care, and janitorial work.

In her speech, Harris discussed the time she spent with SEIU members on visits to Oakland and Detroit, describing the physically and emotionally taxing work taken on by those in the service industry.

“And care workers deserve to be paid fully and fairly for that work,” she said.

Since its founding, Harris said, the SEIU has “been on the front lines of every major expansion of rights for the American people.”

The union, which endorsed Biden and Harris early in the cycle, pledged to spend $200 million on Biden and other Democrats this year to turn out voters of color in Pennsylvania and other swing states.

“We’re going to mobilize a powerful multiracial working-class voting base to win the biggest, you know, election of our time,” Verrett said. “We’re gonna talk to them and we’re gonna connect the dots that this election matters.”

A spokesperson for the SEIU said the union, and its partners, had already knocked on more than 169,000 doors in Pennsylvania this election year.

Polls have shown that Biden’s support has eroded among Black and Latino voters. Verrett attributed that decrease in support to a general lack of enthusiasm, and frustration over the economy and cost of goods.

To overcome this, she said, the administration needs to speak directly about economic issues and rising costs. But ultimately she believes workers of color will not support former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

“I’m not a pollster, I don’t have a magic wand or a Magic 8 Ball. But I am a Black woman in America and I challenge anybody to convince me that Black people and brown people are gonna get up and vote en masse for a known racist, sexist, misogynist,” she said. “Our problem is making sure those voters actually make it to cast their ballots.”

During the vice president’s speech, some in the crowd sought to send a message criticizing the administration’s support for Israel’s war in Gaza, chanting, “Harris, Harris, you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide,” according to a video posted to Instagram.

How has Biden messaged on labor?

Biden has consistently centered union members in his reelection campaign and as part of his political persona.

In his first political event after announcing his reelection campaign last year, Biden spoke at a rally hosted by labor leaders in Philadelphia. Last month, he spent three days in Pennsylvania on the campaign trail. During a stop to speak with union steelworkers in Pittsburgh, Biden announced plans to seek higher tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum.

On Tuesday, Harris said Biden has led “the most pro-union administration in the nation’s history,” highlighting efforts to cancel student loan debt, raise the federal minimum wage for contractors, and strengthen the Affordable Care Act.

The support of working-class voters was a key element of Biden’s 2020 win in Pennsylvania, when he cut into Trump’s support in rural and postindustrial counties. To win in November, Biden will likely need to hold that coalition together.

Francis Ryan, a Rutgers University professor who studies labor history, noted that the strong support of labor groups has long been essential for Democrats seeking to turn out working-class voters. He said this has been especially true in Philadelphia and its surrounding areas.

“In a lot of elections, especially in national elections, where the vote is sometimes determined by just a few thousand votes, labor continues to play an important role in securing victories,” he said.

Verrett predicted that would be even more true in 2024 — pointing to a growing number of worker strikes nationwide.

“Just like they’re using their power on the strike lines, working people are going to use their power in this election,” she said.