Biden to meet with top union leaders as he seeks to reassure worried Democrats


Facing pressure from within his own party to abandon his reelection campaign, President Joe Biden is relying on labor unions to help make the case that his record in office matters more than his age.

The 81-year-old Democrat is set to meet Wednesday with the executive council of the AFL-CIO, America's largest federation of trade unions.

The AFL-CIO said the president has been booked to attend the meeting for more than a year, but his participation now involves much higher scrutiny after his weak debate performance against Donald Trump raised fears about his ability to compete in November's election. His sit-down with union officials also overlaps with the NATO summit in Washington, where Biden is navigating geopolitics with other world leaders.

A person who has been involved in past executive council meetings described them as largely informal and unscripted, a sign that Biden will not be able to rely on a prepared text as he seeks to solidify support among a group of union leaders who are both loyal to his administration and pragmatic. The person insisted on anonymity to preview the private meeting.

A White House official, insisting on anonymity to preview the meeting, said that Biden intends to thank the union leaders for their support and outline his plans for the future. Biden is close to many union leaders who will be in the room, and considers AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler to be a personal friend.

The council is composed of more than 50 officials from the unions that compose the AFL-CIO, with the group representing 12.5 million union members.

So far, the unions are sticking with the Biden administration despite widespread fears that his age handicaps his candidacy after his shaky performance in the June 27 debate. But some statements of support are also worded diplomatically to suggest a degree of flexibility in case Biden chooses to drop out — saying they back the Biden-Harris administration and not just Biden personally.

"President Biden and Vice President Harris have always had workers' backs — and we will have theirs," Shuler, the AFL-CIO president, said after the debate.

After Biden was interviewed by ABC News last week in the aftermath of his poor debate, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, posted on X: "Biden is an incredible President and tonight we saw that he's on top of the details. He has my support and we're ready to keep working for Biden-Harris to win in November."

Some union leaders have been more targeted in their support for Biden and his continued candidacy.

United Steelworkers International President David McCall said before Wednesday's meeting that his union "proudly supports" Biden, saying that his "record of delivering for working people stands for itself."

Kenneth Cooper, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, was also firmly behind Biden, saying that his union members "couldn't ask for a stronger advocate."

Wednesday's meeting has become a test of the union movement's strategy to emphasize Biden's policy agenda as a way to overcome doubts about his candidacy. Biden routinely holds his events at union halls. He has conversed regularly with several of the union leaders at Wednesday's meeting, knowing that the group is a key link at the local level to the voters that he says make him the Democrats' best candidate in November.

Over the course of his term, Biden has tied his administration to the idea that labor unions built the middle class. He visited a picket line during the auto strikes, backed the steelworkers union in objecting to Nippon Steel taking over U.S. Steel, saved pensions for union workers as part of his pandemic aid and sided with unions on a new rule to make more workers eligible for overtime pay.

Biden is so mindful of union workers that he recently canceled a speech planned for the conference of the National Education Association in Philadelphia after the union's staff announced a strike and formed a picket line.

One person familiar with the labor movement's thinking said there is an acknowledgment that Biden lost some ground among voters after the debate, but the unions have found that one-on-one conversations about Biden's agenda are mattering more to members and their families than his age and health. Their pitch is that Biden's agenda has directly helped union workers while Trump's plans could leave them worse off.

The AFL-CIO has raised 42 specific objections to Trump's time as president from 2017 to 2021. It noted that the Republican, who recently proposed making tips paid to workers tax-free, had also as president implemented a proposal to let bosses pocket their employees' tips, among other concerns about his tax cuts and efforts to restrict unionization.

Trump has also made a play for union members, having met in January with officials in the Teamsters Union and saying afterward that although Republicans generally don't get backing from organized labor, "in my case it's different because I've employed thousands of Teamsters and I thought we should come over and pay our respects."

The former president has portrayed himself as supporting blue-collar workers, with the Teamsters president Sean O'Brien later saying that there's "no doubt" that Trump enjoys some support from union members. O'Brien is scheduled to speak at the Republican National Convention next week in Milwaukee at Trump's invitation.

In 2020, AP VoteCast found that 16% of voters came from union households and 56% of them supported Biden. Biden and Trump essentially split non-union households in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, meaning that the Democrat's edge with union households was likely a critical factor in his victory.

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