Philadelphia — At a packed ‘Presidential Summit’ on Tuesday organized and sponsored by this city’s AFL-CIO Labor Council, former Delaware Senator and Vice-President and repeat Democratic presidential primary contender Joe Biden’s oft-touted claim to be the “working-class,” or alternatively “middle-class” favorite looked pretty exaggerated.
Assigned pole position as the first candidate to get 30 minutes to make his case to the assembled union activists and members in the huge Philadelphia Convention Center, Biden claimed that in all his years in politics, “I have never let you down.” He challenged opponents to show where he had “ever voted against the interests” of unions and working people.
Biden was greeted initially with polite but wide-spread applause after being introduced by retired local journalist Vernon Odem, the event’s emcee. But the applause that followed for what he had to say was decidedly subdued — for example when he said that on day one of his presidency he’d end President Trump’s tax break for the top 10% of the nation’s citizens and raise the child care credit to $8000, the applause was minimal and brief. The response to his mention of his “health care plan,” which he promised would allow “union members to keep their plans,” was even more embarrassingly lackluster. And no wonder: Most unions these days dare battling rear-guard actions in negotiations (mostly failures) to prevent bosses from paring away coverage, increasing the workers’ share of premiums, raising co-pays and deductibles, and, as GM demonstrated in the current UAW strike, cancelling health coverage for workers on strike.
The contrast to the assembled workers’ response to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose turn came after both Biden and Andrew Yang, was marked. Striding onto the stage to a rousing rendition of John Lennon’s “Power to the People!” (candidates at the event chose their own theme music), Sanders, his voice more gravelly than usual because of a gruelling campaign schedule, quickly cited his “100% AFL-CIO voting record” over his political career and said he had “walked on picket lines more times than I can remember.” He then, without mentioning him by name, slapped down Biden’s claim to have “always been with” working people by saying “I worked to get Amazon workers $15/hour, I did not vote for the war in Iraq, I did not vote for the Wall Street bailout, I did not vote for the Bankruptcy Bill, and I did not vote for NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, which have cost American workers four million jobs.”
Biden voted for all those anti-worker measures.
In response to that obvious knock on Biden, the hall erupted in loud clapping and cheers of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!”
More ear-splitting cheers followed his pledge, as president, to get Congress to pass, “for starters,” a $!5 minimum wage, to make public colleges and trade schools free, and to cancel all student debt “using a tax on stock and bond trading” to pay for it.
Where Biden tried (largely unsuccessfully judging by audience response) to drive a wedge between climate activists and union workers, claiming the Green New Deal proposed by AOC and Sanders would be a threat to “good-paying union jobs in the energy sector,” Sanders, to loud cheers, vowed his trillion-dollar Green New Deal proposal would “create 20 million new jobs.” He added, “Coal and oil workers aren’t the enemy; climate change is the enemy!”
Refusing to patronize the assembled crowd by promising to save their polluting energy-sector jobs as Biden did, he told the unionized workers, again to widespread and raucous applause, “You don’t want to look at your kids and grandchildren 20 years from now and have them say, “Grandpa, didn’t you know what was happening?’ What the scientists are telling us is that we are playing with the very future of this planet!”
Sanders also won wild applause for his far more radical plan for workers, saying he would pass a Workplace Democracy Act. “It would say if 50 percent plus one of the workers in a company sign a card, they get a union, and if a company refuses to negotiate a contract they will be severely penalized. If they want a federal government contract, they can forget it!”
He also vowed to pass a law ending the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act and eliminating the ability of states to pass so-called right-to-work laws, which bar contracts that require workers at a unionized company to join and pay union dues as a condition for employment. (In most states workers receive the benefits of a union-negotiated contract, including union representation at grievance hearings, whether they join and pay dues or not, a huge burden on labor unions if workers don’t have to pay any dues for those benefits and that support.)
But the biggest applause line for Sanders came when he said, “We will guarantee health care to every man, woman and child — what every other major country in the world already does.”
Sanders didn’t mince words. He said, “The corporations are waging a war against the working class of this country.” He explained that his campaign, win or lose, is about organizing and “bringing together working people to create an agenda that works for all of us.” He added, “Together we are going to end a corrupt political system that can be bought by the wealthy.”
Calling the trade union movement “the last line of organized resistance against the corporate agenda,” he vowed, “I believe that at a time when millions of people want to join a union, it should be easier,” adding, “I believe that union membership will double in the first year after I am president.”
While Sanders was clearly the favorite of this all-unionized and very racially and gender-diverse worker audience, the prevailing media portrayal of Biden as the favorite of both white workers and black people was further debunked by the better reception accorded to even the presentations given by Yang and New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, neither of whom has made labor union issues a central part of their campaigns.
Notably absent from this AFL-CIO event were Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and California Senator Kamala Harris, two other candidates who tend to get more positive attention in the US corporate media than does Sanders.
Whether Sanders’ campaign can again overcome transparent mass media bias and reach the broader Democratic base during this primary as did his 2016 effort, and whether he can overcome the obvious antipathy and undermining efforts of the party leadership in the Democratic National Committee, Sanders appears to be the clear favorite of organized labor, if this rank-and-file Philadelphia union crowd is any indication.