Biden seeks support from labor leaders in his bid to reassure concerned Democrats

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden met Wednesday with the executive council of the AFL-CIO, America’s largest labor federation, in a bid to win support from a critical constituency as he fends off persistent calls to step aside in the 2024 campaign.

“I see you as my domestic NATO – no joke,” the 81-year-old Democrat told the crowd gathered at the headquarters. He praised the power of unions and told them of his long-standing support for them, telling the crowd that even Wall Street recognized the power of unions, while restating his vision for an economy built “from the bottom up and the middle out.”

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

The AFL-CIO said the president has been booked to attend the meeting for more than a year, but his attendance is now under much stricter scrutiny after his weak debate performance against Donald Trump raised concerns about his ability to compete in the November election. His conversation with union officials also overlapped with the NATO summit in Washington, where Biden will discuss geopolitical issues with other world leaders.

Biden spoke into a handheld microphone and no teleprompter in sight. He thanked labor leaders for their support and outlined his plans for the future to dispel doubts about his reelection campaign. Biden is close to many labor leaders in the room and counts AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler as a personal friend.

In Biden’s announcement, Shuler told the audience that he supported jobs, manufacturing and creating good union jobs in clean energy. She told the president bluntly that he had the support of the union.

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“You have always relied on us, and we have your back,” Shuler told the president.

The council is made up of more than 50 officials from the unions that make up the AFL-CIO. The group represents 12.5 million union members.

So far, unions have continued to stand by the Biden administration, despite widespread fears that his age will hamper his candidacy after his shaky performance in the June 27 debate. But some of the endorsements have also been couched diplomatically to suggest a degree of flexibility should Biden decide to withdraw — saying they support the Biden-Harris administration, not just Biden personally.

After Biden was interviewed by ABC News last week following 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 has mastered the details. He has my support and we are ready to keep working to ensure a Biden-Harris win in November.”

Some union leaders are more focused in their support for Biden and his continued candidacy.

David McCall, president of United Steelworkers International, said before Wednesday’s meeting that his union “proudly supports” Biden and that his “record for working people speaks for itself.”

Kenneth Cooper, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, also threw his weight behind Biden, saying his union members “couldn’t ask for a stronger champion.”

Wednesday’s meeting has become a test of the labor movement’s strategy of emphasizing Biden’s policy agenda as a way to overcome doubts about his candidacy. Biden holds its events in union hallsHe spoke regularly with several union leaders at Wednesday’s meeting, knowing that the group is an important local link to voters, which he believes makes him the Democrats’ best candidate in November.

Over the course of his tenure, Biden has tied his administration to the idea that unions built the middle class. He visited a picket line supported the steelworkers’ union in their objection to the car strikes Nippon steel US Steel takeover, saved pensions for union members as part of its pandemic relief and supported unions in a new rule to make more workers eligible for overtime pay.

Biden is so concerned about union members that he recently canceled a speech scheduled for the Labor Party conference National Education Association in Philadelphia after union workers declared a strike and formed a picket line.

A person familiar with labor thinking said there was recognition that Biden lost some ground among voters after the debate, but unions have discovered that one-on-one conversations about Biden’s agenda matter more to members and their families than his age and health. Their narrative is that Biden’s agenda has directly helped union members, while Trump’s agenda could leave them worse off.

The AFL-CIO has raised 42 specific objections to Trump’s 2017-2021 term as president, noting that the Republican, who recently proposed making tips paid to workers tax-free, also implemented a proposal as president to let bosses collect their workers’ tips, among other concerns about his tax cuts and efforts to limit unionization.

Trump has also made an attempt to enlist union members, after meeting with Teamsters Union officials in January and then saying that while Republicans generally don’t get support from unions, “in my case it’s different because I’ve employed thousands of Teamsters and I thought we should come here and pay our respects.”

The former president has portrayed himself as a pro-laborer, with Teamsters President Sean O’Brien later saying there’s “no doubt” Trump has some support among union members. O’Brien is expected 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. In fact, Biden and Trump split nonunion households in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, meaning the Democrat’s edge in union households was likely a critical factor in his victory.

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