A Militant Union’s Strategic Case for Joe Biden

A Militant Union’s Strategic Case for Joe Biden

A Militant Union’s Strategic Case for Joe Biden

Instead of portraying Biden as “a savior,” the United Electrical union argues for beating Trump and then pressuring the Democrats.


President Trump says, “Sleepy Joe Biden is just a Trojan Horse for the Radical Left Agenda. He will do whatever they want!”

That’s laughable. So laughable that Biden mocked the claim with a question: “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?”’

For all the efforts by Trump and his Republican minions to make voters fear the Democratic nominee for president, Biden remains what he has always been: a predictable centrist who has never gone anywhere near what Michael Harrington, the great democratic socialist organizer, referred to as “the left wing of the possible.”

The fear with regard to Biden—as a candidate and as a president—is not that he will be too radical. It is that he won’t be bold enough in addressing the challenges posed by a pandemic, mass unemployment, an eviction crisis, economic inequality, police violence and systemic racism, the climate crisis, and an out-of-control Pentagon.

So if the goal is to persuade skeptical voters to cast a ballot for Biden, does it really make sense to portray a former senator and vice president who backed Wall Street bailouts and bad trade deals as a transformative figure in our politics? Or is it more reasonable to argue that voting for the Democratic nominee is a necessary part of a much bigger struggle to achieve economic and social and racial justice?

These are particularly challenging questions for labor unions, which want workers to reject Trump—who took two-fifths of the vote from union households in 2016—in the battleground states where the 2020 election will be decided.

The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, an 84-year-old independent union with a history of prioritizing working-class solidarity over party politics, has come to the conclusion that the best strategy is to level with the 35,000 workers it represents in manufacturing industries and public- and private-sector jobs.

UE is not feigning enthusiasm for Biden. Instead, in a stark assessment of the race issued just before the traditional Labor Day pivot into the fall campaign, the union’s general executive board acknowledged that “working people deserve a government, and a president, who will stand up for them against the corporate onslaught of the past several decades. Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, greedy corporations have destroyed good jobs, attacked our unions and devastated our communities. We have to be honest that the 2020 elections will not deliver that president.”

Unions often go overboard when it comes to talking up Democratic nominees. But UE officials are taking a different tack as they communicate with workers in battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“We are clear that Biden is no savior, and will likely seek to implement the same kind of corporate-friendly policies as previous Democratic presidents Obama and Clinton,” admits the union statement. But, it adds, there is also clarity about something else: “The working class cannot afford four more years of Trump.”

That’s not a typical union endorsement. In fact, says UE general president Carl Rosen, “We do not consider this to be an endorsement of Joe Biden by UE but instead that it is a strategic recommendation to our members and to working people in general that they vote for Biden to remove Donald Trump from office.” He explains that “for many unions endorsements end up with the union trying to convince their members that the candidate will be really good for them. Members can see through that and have been disappointed too many times. Then they stop listening to the union’s recommendations. That’s why we think it is better to give an unvarnished statement of the situation and trust our members to make the right decision.”

Rosen’s reasoning is sound. In 2016, many unions gave early and enthusiastic support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Yet exit polls found Clinton’s margin among voters in union households was just 51-42 over Trump. That was the narrowest Democratic advantage since Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan in 1984. “Clinton’s poor performance among union households appeared to especially damage her in crucial Midwestern states,” noted Politico. “Obama won Ohio in 2012, besting Romney in those households by 23 percentage points. Clinton actually lost Ohio’s union households to Trump by 9 points, according to exit polls. The state went to Trump.”

The numbers were almost as bad in other swing states that abandoned Democratic voting patterns to back Trump, such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Rosen sees the 2020 election through the eyes of an organizer. “November 3rd must be a beginning, not an end,” he says. “If we are successful in dumping Donald Trump out of office, labor unions and all social justice organizations must immediately get to work at forcing a Biden administration to not only live up to commitments made in the Democratic Party platform, but to go well beyond them to fully meet the needs of working people in this country. We have to mobilize to force a change in what is considered politically possible and necessary.”

That realistic approach is rooted in UE’s tradition as an union that operates outside the AFL-CIO framework. While many unions are quick to endorse Democratic presidential nominees, UE has sat out a number of presidential elections since its founding in 1936. The union has backed some Democrats—such as Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and George McGovern. But it has also worked to form an independent Labor Party and supported alternatives to the two major parties. This year, it endorsed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. But as the executive board’s statement on the fall election noted, “in early 2020 the Democratic Party establishment closed ranks around corporate Democrat Joe Biden, forcing Bernie to end his campaign in April.”

That disappointed many UE activists, as it did millions of others who had embraced Sanders’s call for a “political revolution.” Rosen says he has “no illusions” about the fights ahead with “the corporate forces in the Democratic Party.” Yet UE’s president remains optimistic about the prospects for forging a working-class politics that influences not just the Biden administration and the Democratic Party but the future of the country as well.

“The national conversation over the last decade has already been changed in so many ways due to social justice movements, around income and wealth inequality, around racial and gender justice, around the exploitation of workers on the job, around the preservation and strengthening of public services, and around the need for Medicare for All, among other issues. Now is the time that we need to force politicians to put the needed changes into law and policy,” argues Rosen. “We have the ability to have those fights on offense under a Biden presidency while we are likely to be almost entirely on defense under a second Trump administration.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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