Former Vice-President Joe Biden has several clouds hanging over his candidacy, if not skeletons coming out of the closet. He’s 76 years old. If elected president, he would be the oldest elected president in U.S. history. He’s touchy-feely with women, many of whom have complained about how he made them feel uncomfortable. He can’t apologize enough for his overbearing, insensitive moderation of the Clarence Thomas hearings. He might have prevented Silent Clarence from being a conservative stalwart on the Supreme Court for 27 years. His treatment of Anita Hill was unacceptable. He supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq; his support of capital punishment and harsher anti-crime legislation have proven counter-productive if not politically out of tune.
This is Biden’s third run for the presidency. He’s had a long career in public service, 36 years as a Senator and eight years as Vice-President. Many believe it’s time for a generational change. Like 77-year-old Bernie Sanders and 72-year-old Donald Trump, Biden has had his day in the sun.
There are many new faces. 37-year-old Pete Buttigieg ticks many boxes; mayor of a mid-Western city, Harvard/Oxford scholar, military service in Afghanistan; Catholic and gay. What about 38-year-old Tulsi Gabbard? She was the first Samoan-American and Hindu member of Congress. She served in the military in Iraq and Kuwait, supports abortion rights, opposed the Trans Pacific Partnership, and was critical of interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria. She also ticks many progressive boxes.
And we could go on with other strong contenders to lead the changing of the guard: 44-year-old Julian Castro, 46-year-old Beto O’Rourke, 50-year-old Senator Cory Booker, 52-year-old Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and 54-year-old Senator Kamala Harris. When Biden was first elected to the Senate, Buttigieg, Gabbard, and Castro had not been born yet, O’Rourke was two months old.
Given all the above, why was I impressed by Biden’s first campaign speech in Pittsburgh?
Biden chose to open his campaign with a rally in Pennsylvania, a key electoral state in the Banquet Hall of Teamsters Local 249 in Pittsburgh. While many candidates talk about the plight of the middle class, and several have made proposals about increasing taxes for the wealthy and plans for redistribution to help the middle class, Biden understands that in order for the middle class to get back on its feet unions will have to be re-established as the backbone of American workers.
You will say that Biden was merely being opportunistic by opening his campaign appealing to unions, that he knows that in order to win in 2020 the Democratic candidate must do well in the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan Wisconsin and Ohio, all states Trump carried in 2016.
But what does it mean to do well in those states? It means dealing with a decaying industrial base that has not evolved to new technology. Biden’s answer was not just opportunistic, it was pragmatic and went back to his own labor roots and the important role of unions in protecting workers.
Listen to the beginning of his speech. Taking off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves, he personally thanked the International Fire Fighters head and local chief by their first names, the head of the United Steel Workers by his first name, and then rapidly thanked the unions in the building trade, federation of teachers, government employees, carpenters and commercial workers, all without notes.
“I make no apologies. I am a union man,” Biden told the crowd “The country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers, CEOs and hedge fund managers, it was built by you.”
That was where Biden was directly speaking to me, someone whose parents were both union representatives and who worked for a time for the International Labour Organization. Unions have become obsolete, you will counter. Through corruption and new technology, they have lost their relevance to the gig economy. Temporary positions are more and more common with more and more people taking on short-term engagements as freelancers or part-time hires. An Intuit study predicted that by 2020, 40 percent of American workers would be independent contractors. What unions can do to promote employment and remedy the skewed income distribution remains to be seen. “A number of trade unions are in fact investing in the future of gig and informal and independent workers,” a former ILO official informed me. There is even an impressive 2018 ILO Report entitled “Organizing on-demand Representation, voice and collective bargaining in the gig economy.”
Is Biden being nostalgic about the role unions can play in the future? (Am I being nostalgic along with him?) Perhaps. And I do accept many of the criticisms about Biden. I am not sure I will vote for him. But when Thomas Edsall asks in a New York Times opinion piece “Can Democrats figure out how to get unions back into the equation in 2020?” Biden’s pitch to the unions should not be ignored.
I liked his rolling up his sleeve; I liked his familiarity with the unions and his condemnation of the 1%. For that I feel no guilt. His appeal was democratic, something the Democratic party has long gotten away from. So let’s give him some credit, fully recognizing the clouds will not disappear, and that there are real skeletons still coming out of the closet.