Biden Push for Labor Support Is Burdened by Obama-Era Baggage

By Noam Scheiber

Supporters of the former vice president say he can win back union members who rejected Hillary Clinton. But he must overcome some hard feelings first.
Credit...Daniel Acker for The New York Times
Noam Scheiber
On the campaign trail, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has highlighted the first two years of the Obama administration as a time when he helped enact sweeping legislation to widen access to health care and revive the economy, accomplishments most Democrats revere.
But to many union officials, those years were a disappointment — a time when the administration failed to pass a labor rights bill that was their top priority and imposed a tax that would affect many union members’ health plans. And they partly blame Mr. Biden.
“They were in the driver’s seat for the first two years, and what did they get done from a labor perspective?” said Chris Laursen, the president of a United Automobile Workers local in Ottumwa, Iowa, with nearly 600 members. “Joe Biden is complete status quo.”
Since Mr. Biden began his third campaign for the presidency last April, his supporters have portrayed him as the Democrat best positioned to win back union members who deserted the party in 2016 in crucial industrial states.
There is some basis for that claim. Mr. Biden, who has longstanding ties to many labor leaders, quickly gained an endorsement from the politically powerful firefighters’ union, and just won an endorsement from the ironworkers’ union. Polls frequently show him leading other Democratic candidates in battleground-state matchups against President Trump.
But for many labor voters — even white, blue-collar union members whose votes skewed toward Mr. Trump — the reaction to the former vice president has been more mixed. They frequently cite his policy centrism, which many associate with his time in President Barack Obama’s White House.
A mid-January poll by SurveyUSA showed Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont surging to within three points of Mr. Biden among union households nationally. The combined support of Mr. Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has generally outpaced Mr. Biden’s among union households since August.
The Biden campaign declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Mr. Obama. A campaign surrogate, former Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, called Mr. Biden “a champion for organized labor” and said, “It’s easy to take more extreme positions on issues when no one holds you accountable for actually enacting them.”
The reservations of union members could be a bigger problem for Mr. Biden than they were for Hillary Clinton during her 2016 Democratic race against Mr. Sanders. Some large unions, including the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed Mrs. Clinton, though many members later supported Mr. Sanders.
In the current cycle, many of these unions have skipped an early endorsement, making it easier for individual members and in some cases locals to support their own candidates. The teachers’ union in Los Angeles has endorsed Mr. Sanders, as has the Ottumwa local of the United Food and Commercial Workers, whose 1.3-million-member international endorsed Mrs. Clinton before the 2016 Iowa caucuses. A large Pennsylvania local of the food workers’ union has endorsed Mr. Biden.
While the Labor Department recently reported that union membership last year fell to a record low — 10.3 percent of the work force — labor endorsements can still be critical because of the role of unions in educating members about candidates and canvassing for them on the ground.
Mr. Laursen, the U.A.W. local leader in Ottumwa, estimates that more than half his members — who are primarily workers at a John Deere plant — backed Mr. Trump in 2016. But he says many of those who oppose the president’s re-election are supporting Mr. Sanders over Mr. Biden.
And the skepticism toward Mr. Biden may be even more pronounced in the less white, less male parts of the labor force.
Nicole McCormick, a West Virginia music teacher who helped organize a statewide walkout that made national headlines in 2018, said she worried that Mr. Biden wasn’t “willing to push for the things that we as Americans look at as radical, but the rest of the world looks at and is like, ‘We did that 50 years ago.’” She cited expanded access to unions, universal health care and paid parental leave as examples.
(Mr. Biden has proposed wide-ranging labor-law reforms, though his plan isn’t as ambitious as Mr. Sanders’s or Ms. Warren’s in some respects. He supports paid family leave.)
Keon Liberato, the president of a Philadelphia-based local of more than 200 workers who maintain and construct railroad tracks, said many of his members preferred Mr. Sanders. Mr. Liberato said his members, both African-American and white, knew Mr. Biden as a friend to railroad workers, but tended to believe that taking health care off the bargaining table under Mr. Sanders’s Medicare for All plan “would be huge for the American people.”
In voicing their concerns about Mr. Biden, union officials frequently cite dismay over the Obama years. They acknowledge a number of accomplishments, including the economic stimulus, the rescue of Chrysler and General Motors, and elements of the Affordable Care Act, as well as a variety of pro-labor appointments and regulations. But they express reservations about the administration’s focus on deficit reduction, its ties to Wall Street, and especially its efforts to lower barriers to foreign competition.
“I was really disappointed with his trade policies,” said Nick Diveley, a U.A.W. member in Ottumwa, who supported Mr. Obama in 2008. “That’s what pushed me to Trump.” Mr. Diveley said he was open to voting for someone other than Mr. Trump in the fall but called Mr. Biden “just another established Washington guy.”
Union members and leaders also grumble about the so-called Cadillac tax on expensive health care plans that the Obama administration sought as a way to rein in wasteful spending. “It was an egghead Ivy League idea, that people overuse health care,” said D. Taylor, the president of the hospitality and casino workers union UNITE HERE, which helped lead the unsuccessful fight against the tax.
(The union was supportive of the law and the administration over all; the tax was recently repealed.)
And some complain that the Obama administration delayed action on labor’s top priority — a bill that could have expanded their ranks by making it easier to unionize through a sign-up process called card check, rather than a secret ballot — partly so that it could focus on health care.
“He failed to fight for our priorities and stand up for the main reason we endorsed him — card check,” said Norwood Orrick, a telecom technician and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Tampa, Fla. “It was discussed a lot in my immediate circles of activists.”
Beyond any single policy, there are complaints that the Obama administration sometimes treated labor as an interest group to be managed rather than a partner in making policy. Ana Avendaño, a former senior official at the A.F.L.-C.I.O., recalled a White House meeting on immigration that the federation’s president, Richard Trumka, attended.
“They sat him at one of the corners of the table,” squeezed between two other people, Ms. Avendaño said. “He couldn’t even open his pad. In D.C. terms, it was a show of disrespect.”
A spokesman for Mr. Trumka said: “While President Trumka worked with and respected President Obama, he felt there were times when the president tried to split the difference between Main Street and Wall Street. That did not serve him or us well.”
Some labor officials and union members see the more pragmatic approach of the Obama years, and Mr. Biden’s moderate reputation, as a selling point. “Our guys lean 55 percent Republican,” said Thomas Hanify, president of the Indiana firefighters’ union. “Over all for my members, Warren and Bernie Sanders are a little extreme.”
And many prefer Mr. Biden’s approach to health care, voicing concern that Mr. Sanders would do away with insurance plans that unions have worked hard to negotiate.
Other labor leaders, while citing shortcomings of the Obama presidency, say Mr. Biden was an advocate for their interests within the administration. Teachers’ unions were furious after Mr. Obama publicly embraced the firing of the entire faculty of an underperforming school in Rhode Island in 2010. But Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Mr. Biden helped resolve the situation.
“We started having a fairly heated argument, me and the vice president, at an A.F.L. meeting,” Ms. Weingarten said. “But he heard what I was saying.”
Jared Bernstein, an economic adviser to Mr. Biden during his vice presidency, said the same was often true on trade and other issues, including labor-law reform, which faced a complicated path in the Senate. “I know for a fact where Biden is on these things,” Mr. Bernstein said. “But he was part of an administration that at times very much pleased the unions, and at other times very much pissed them off.”
(As a senator, Mr. Biden supported some free-trade legislation, like the North American Free Trade Agreement.)
But many labor officials regard Mr. Biden as essentially a sympathetic face for unfriendly policies he was either powerless to reverse or personally advanced. One cited Mr. Biden’s role in leading the negotiations with Republicans over a long-term deficit-cutting deal that could have led to cuts in programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Mr. Biden, whose record on Social Security has been a subject of sparring with the Sanders campaign, says he supports an expansion of benefits for many retirees.
Frank Flanders, the political director of the food workers’ local in Ottumwa, said that he was skeptical of Mr. Biden’s views on trade and his more hawkish foreign policy views, and that he regarded Mr. Biden as a “corporate Democrat.”
“I think we had a lot of Trump voters in the general, for the most part it’s because he wasn’t Hillary,” said Mr. Flanders, describing how his members voted in 2016. “It’s also a concern I have about a Biden candidacy.”