Biden draws contrast with Trump in Labor Day pitch to unions

President Joe Biden speaks during a Labor Day event at the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19, in Philadelphia, Monday, Sept. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

President Joe Biden contrasted his policies with those of Republican primary front-runner Donald Trump in a Labor Day pitch to union workers, who form a critical part of his electoral bloc but remain skeptical about his stewardship of the U.S. economy.

“We’re turning things around because of you. When the last guy was here, you were shipping jobs to China. Now we’re bringing jobs home from China,” Biden said in Philadelphia at a union hall Monday, an event that had the feel of a campaign-style rally. “When the last guy was here, your pensions were at risk. We helped save millions of pensions with your help.”


The president took the stage to chants of “four more years,” speaking before an American flag and flanked by signs reading “Union Strong.”

“When the last guy was here, he looked at the world from Park Avenue. I look at it from Scranton, Pennsylvania,” Biden said, with the references to his predecessor inviting boos from the crowd. The setting of the remarks highlighted the importance the White House has placed on shoring up Biden’s ties with rank-and-file labor workers, taking the president back to his birth state of Pennsylvania, a crucial 2024 battleground. Biden narrowly won the state in 2020 over then-President Trump, who now leads the GOP field for the 2024 nomination by a wide margin according to polls. For Biden, Philadelphia is friendly ground, a Democratic stronghold where he will need to turn out voters.

The president has spent the summer traveling the country to pitch his economic agenda of Bidenomics, highlighting a surge in factory construction, steady job growth and wage gains that have lifted chances for the economy to make a soft landing even as the Federal Reserve keeps interest rates historically high. That messaging blitz, though, has failed to lift his approval ratings and the public’s poor marks for his handling of the economy. August jobs data released Friday painted a mixed picture, with payrolls rising more than forecast, wage growth slowing and a higher unemployment rate. Biden has regularly touted himself as the most pro-union president in history and won the support of multiple labor leaders, but has struggled to make his message resonate with blue collar workers worried about lingering inflation and signs of a softening labor market. “I told you, when I ran for president, I told you I’d have your back. And I have. You know there are a lot of politicians in this country who don’t know how to say the word ‘union,’” he said Monday.

Biden said U.S. support for unions is higher today than at any point in the last 60 years, and urged Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, also known as the PRO Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize.

Monday’s speech comes with a powerful union, the United Auto Workers, locked in contentious contract negotiations with Detroit’s legacy automakers.

The UAW’s 150,000 members are threatening a strike on General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV, maker of the Jeep and Chrysler brands, if a deal is not reached by a Sept. 14 deadline.

The union is proposing a 46% raise, traditional pensions, and a 32-hour work week — demands which have rankled automakers.

The UAW’s campaign has run up against the administration’s push to transition the US to electric vehicles, with union leaders worrying thousands of workers in EV battery plants for the big automakers aren’t union-protected. UAW President Shawn Fain met with Biden at the White House in July to update them on negotiations. Publicly, he has said Democrats need to do more to support the UAW’s fight for higher wages.

Earlier on Monday, Biden downplayed the threat of a strike by the UAW, saying he did not think it would happen.

In recent months, Biden has avoided labor disputes that threatened to upend supply chains, with contracts at West Coast ports, for freight-rail workers, and an agreement between United Parcel Service Inc. and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The talks involving the UAW are the most fraught yet and the tensions between the union and Biden have created an opening for Trump.

Biden has the backing of the AFL-CIO coalition and other unions, but the UAW, which endorsed him in 2020 has yet to back his reelection bid.

“Auto workers are getting totally ripped off,” Trump said in a video posted Aug. 30 on his Truth Social account about Biden’s push for electric vehicles. “There’s no such thing as ‘fair transition’ that destroys over 100,000 auto manufacturing jobs,” he said. Trump has urged the union to back him instead of Biden.

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