Biden touts labor endorsements, but members worry about Trump's "cultish" support

Washington — President Biden often calls himself the most “pro-union president in history,” and the ballroom packed with labor members Wednesday needed no more convincing.

The crowd at the North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) conference booed at the sight of former President Donald Trump during an video before Mr. Biden’s speech, with some chanting “lock him up!” before the president took the stage. 

“Donald Trump is incapable of running anything,” said NABTU president Sean McGarvey in the video, where the union announced its endorsement of Mr. Biden.

Seeking to contrast himself with Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mr. Biden said “Trump preferred non-union workers in his real estate projects,” and added his predecessor put “union busters” on the National Labor Relations Board.

Nearly all the major labor unions have endorsed Mr. Biden. The board of the AFL-CIO, which represents 60 unions and has over 12 million members, was one of the first to endorse him in June last year, 17 months before the general election

Over 30 organized national labor groups have endorsed Mr. Biden, including LiUNA, a construction workers union with many Latino and Black members, and the United Auto Workers (UAW). Many endorsed Mr. Biden in 2020, and exit polling shows he won 56% of union households nationwide, compared to 40% for Trump, nearly double 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s support.

American support for organized labor is at its highest in decades, and some groups have already announced voter mobilization programs to support the Democratic ticket, backed by investments in the hundreds of millions.

Battleground state chapters like the Culinary Union Local 226 in Nevada provided a grassroots network crucial to Mr. Biden’s narrow victory in 2020. This fall, its members will begin canvassing in August and September, in the sprint before the election.

The NABTU, with over 3 million members, will fund an eight-figure voter mobilization program targeting over 250,000 members in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states expected to be closely contested. The United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters, home to over 375,000 members, launched a member-to-member ad campaign praising Mr. Biden’s agenda. 

In March, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), with over 2 million members, announced a $200 million effort to target over 6 million working class voters in battleground states through roundtables, digital and mailed ads and canvassing. 

SEIU secretary-treasurer April Verrett called the program a “down payment on investing in working people’s futures” and said the union has contacted over 1 million voters so far.

Labor members interviewed by CBS News at the NABTU conference praised laws Mr. Biden has signed, including the pension reforms in the 2021 American Rescue Plan and union jobs created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. They call Mr. Biden “one of us” and say they feel they have a true ally in the White House.  

Despite the president’s many union endorsements, labor leaders still anticipate a significant portion of organized labor could support Trump. 

Labor members on Wednesday said they think the rematch between Mr. Biden and Trump will be “extremely” close, and that they’ve heard fellow union members in their communities express irritation about lingering inflation and the rising cost of living. 

James Rapp, a member of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Association in central Pennsylvania, says there’s “doom and gloom” in his community about the economy and inflation. He estimated that in his union, support is about 60% for Mr. Biden and 40% for Trump. 

Denver sheet metal worker Jon Alvino, who praised the infrastructure bill for bringing new construction projects to his area, said he is “worried, to an extent,” about Mr. Biden’s reelection chances because of Trump’s deep support with his base. 

“He’s a cultish figure. And I feel like some building trades members and union members are putting issues such as evangelical issues, gun issues, and other things they feel personal about, ahead of their paycheck,” said Alvino, who said the growth in federally funded projects is “balancing out” some economic frustrations.  

Mr. Biden has made repeated overtures to organized labor during his campaign. In the last week, he’s spoken at the United Steelworkers headquarters in Pittsburgh and two labor union conferences in Washington, D.C.

“There’s an expression that comes to mind: ‘You go home with them that brung you to the dance.’ And you brought me to the dance,” he told steelworkers in Pittsburgh last Wednesday. 

He campaigned with UAW President Shawn Fain in Detroit in February, and in September 2023 he stood with UAW members on a picket line — the first time a sitting U.S. president had done so.

“Unions and their trademark organizing power will be critical to mobilizing voters this November,” said Biden campaign spokesperson Mia Ehrenberg. She said their support would position the campaign to defeat Trump this fall. 

But the Trump campaign says voters’ frustration with the economy means that Mr. Biden’s labor union endorsements won’t translate into unified support for Mr. Biden. 

Asked for comment, the campaign shared two videos of union members voicing support for Trump after he visited a construction site in New York City ahead of his ongoing hush money trial, with one worker saying he’d tell Mr. Biden “f**k you.” 

“While Joe Biden receives endorsements from the union bosses who automatically support Democrats every election cycle, President Trump is proud to be whole-heartedly supported by the hardworking laborers who serve as the backbone of these unions,” said Trump campaign spokesperson Karoline Leavitt.

Some unions and their local chapters are also pressuring the White House over Israeli strikes on Gaza. 

In January, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry issued a statement calling for an immediate cease-fire. The SEIU also signed an April letter to the White House calling for the end of U.S. military aid to Israel until humanitarian aid restrictions are lifted, according to The New York Times. 

In February, the largest union in the state of Washington, the UFCW 3000, backed the effort to urge voters to choose “uncommitted” instead of Mr. Biden on their Democratic primary ballot as a protest vote. But a representative said Thursday the union remains “committed to supporting the most labor friendly candidate in this election,” Mr. Biden.

And numerous local union chapters and student labor union groups signed a letter this month expressing solidarity with student workers involved in the pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia University.

Mr. Biden, who has called for a cease-fire in Gaza, signed a bill Wednesday to send more aid to Israel.

But few believe labor members are deeply engaged in the fall election yet — seven months “is an eternity,” Culinary Union Local 226 secretary-treasurer Ted Pappageorge pointed out. 

“They’re just not tuned in,” he said. “Democrats are going to have to tackle this issue of the economy and prices. The real battle now is going after who we are dealing with here: these big corporations and price gouging. I think you’re going to hear that.”

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