PITTSBURGH – If Joe Biden runs for president, he can count on the kind of union workers who came here to march next to him on Labor Day: white, ethnic, from families that have been paying local chapter dues for generations.
The problem for Biden: there are fewer and fewer of those union workers left, here or anywhere else.It’s a movement now that’s less male and far less Italian, Polish, or Irish than when Biden got started in politics in the 1970s. It’s one that cares about immigration reform as much as trade. And it’s one that’s highly conflicted about a potential contest between the vice president and Hillary Clinton.
Biden rallied this industrial crowd by talking about his roots, the need for labor to build the middle class, and the longest walk up the stairs any father ever has to make to tell his family he’s lost his job. “I’m mad. I’m angry. These are the people I grew up with,” Biden said, criticizing Republican policies that he says have hurt labor nationwide.
But thinking about union workers as the kind of people he grew up with in the 1940s is outdated, and that’s something Biden will struggle with if he runs for president.
“We would hope that Vice President Biden, should he intend to run, and others should really make a concerted effort to reach out to women of color,” said Kimberly Freeman Brown,former the executive director of American Rights at Work.
The potential contest between Biden and Hillary Clinton is dividing organized labor. Many union leaders aren’tthrilled with Clinton, but they’re not convinced Biden will run, and they’re trying to stay away from the speculation to avoid antagonizing her or hurting him — and damaging their already declining influence in the process.
Even the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, who is such a Clinton supporter that she serves on the board of the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA, declined comment on the possibility of a Biden campaign.
Among the people who sat along the half-mile parade route here on Monday, Clinton hasn’t penetrated much. The former secretary of State’s campaign had no presence in Pittsburgh, not even to match the scattered hand-made Bernie Sanders signs waved at Biden. (“I love you Joe, but I’m voting for Bernie,” read one, to which Biden responded, “He’s a good man.”)
Toward the end of the route, Biden turned back to march with the Steelworkers behind their banner, and they briefly rewarded him by chanting “Run, Joe, Run!”
It lasted about a minute.
When the parade ended at the United Steelworkers headquarters building, Biden went inside for a private meeting with USW President Leo Gerard as 150 union workers rallied inside.
But away from the streets of Pittsburgh, organized labor looks very different.
“The membership has changed dramatically over two decades and it mostly has to do with the decline of private-sector unions and the survival of public-sector unionism. Women and people of color are overrepresented in the public sector,” said Ruth Milkman,a labor expert at the CUNY Graduate Center. “The movement is not homogenous, union members of different types are distributed very differently over different industries and different individual unions.”
Rallying these increasingly disparate groups around a campaign is a critical task for any Democrat who wants the nomination — organized labor can still deliver the volunteers any successful contender needs on the ground in the most important battleground states, including here in Pennsylvania. For Biden, it’s especially important, as he would need union support to catch up organizationally in early states, particularly Iowa.
And that’s why the possibility of Biden’s entry is motivating union leaders to see what concessions they can squeeze out of him in advance — like a clear ‘no’ on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal that President Barack Obama’s trying to get through.
“If you’re not against the TPP, very candidly, people may still vote for you, but they’re not going to work for you,” said Jack Shea, the president of the AFL-CIO local Allegheny County Labor Council.
Biden’s not an obvious alternative to Clinton on this score: he’s been a major advocate for the deal, integrally involved in helping Obama get enough Democrats in the House and Senate on board to get fast-track authority approved in June.
Asked whether he sees a difference between Clinton’s and Biden’s TPP positions as he marched with Biden, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka—who had talked with Biden about the campaign over lunch at the Naval Observatory a week and a half ago—just smiled.
“That’s an issue that our members will take into account,” he said.
The other thing fueling Biden buzz among union workers is the same thing fueling it among everyone else — the sense that Clinton’s in trouble with an email controversy that will certainly drag at least into the start of primary season.
“It’s safe to say that there are some folks who are probably concerned about the current state of affairs with Hillary and the theory of potential implosion,” said Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley, who wasn’t in Pittsburgh. “And some of those folks might view Biden as safe harbor.”
Having the vice president take on Clinton, Hanley said, “would enrich the race.”
The Clinton campaign, while taking care not to look like it’s engaging with Biden, has been stepping up its response, accelerating its rollout of union support.
But the union workers who showed up here on Monday still love the vice president. And he loves them, grabbing the cap handed to him USW’s Gerard and pulling Trumka in for a bear hug, calling out local union heads, and getting the crowd going by attacking “trust fund babies” and a tax code that’s created two Americas.
“Without question Joe Biden has, throughout his career in various different ways, been a friend and ally of the labor movement,” said Charles J. Wishman, secretary-treasurer of the Iowa AFL-CIO. “If he gets into the race, and that’s a big if at this point, but if he does, I think people are still open to listening to all different kinds of messages and would be willing to listen to what he has to say.”
They’re a little more skeptical in Nevada, where he’d be hoping to crack the early state that for now seems most solid for Clinton by leaning back on old ties with some of the stronger labor unions there, and where Biden’s advisers believe he’d run strong.
“We have plenty of time to make up our mind about what an endorsement process looks like,” said Yvanna Cancela, political director for Nevada’s Culinary Workers Union Local 226. “Despite the kind of buzz and what seems like a very early start to the election, it is still more than a year away. We have time to hear from our members and hear from candidates as the field narrows or expands.”
Along the parade route, Biden started running. Then he stopped. Then he was running again, almost sprinting to catch up. Then he was back to taking his time.
The vice president’s staff at points seemed overwhelmed, trying to balance reporters craning in for every word with a boss determined to live up of every moment of what was the first and maybe last retail politicking stop of his coy pre-campaign.
“Just makes me feel like I’m home,” Biden said, as he started marching down Liberty Avenue here Monday.
Toward the end, he looked up at the reporters penned in on the back of a flat-bed truck, wondering why they were locked in.
“I’m dangerous,” Biden said with a grin. “I’m dangerous.”