Biden has presented himself as a friend of unions. But does he have a record of showing up for workers? Kamau Franklin and Jeff Cohen discuss his record with host Jacqueline Luqman
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Hi. I’m Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.
Welcome to the second trending topics segment this week. This is our weekly discussion of some of the trending topics in U.S. politics. We’ll continue our discussion with an examination of Joe Biden’s record with unions, and if it’s genuine, and can he walk away from it to get the nomination for the Democratic Party? Now, the senator from Delaware is wrapping himself in his blue collar roots again. But has he really been a friend to blue collar workers?
Continuing with me to talk about this are Jeff Cohen. Jeff is co-founder of RootsAction.org, and the co-founder of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. He is also the author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media. Hi, Jeff.
JEFF COHEN: Nice to be with you.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And Kamau Franklin. Kamau is an attorney and founder of Community Movement Builders Inc, and is a co-host of a podcast called Renegade Culture. Hi, Kamau.
KAMAU FRANKLN: Thanks for having me.
Let’s start with this issue of Biden presenting himself as a friend of unions, going so far as to say in his kickoff rally, which was held at a union hall in Pittsburgh, “I make no apologies. I am a union man, period.” When Biden said this he actually received one of the biggest applauses of the rally. But is he really a union man, though? Jeff, let me ask you, what’s Joe Biden’s record in regard to unions?
JEFF COHEN: It ain’t good. You know, that same day that he was at that rally at the union hall, he had that big fund raising event at the vice president’s–at the mansion of the vice president of Comcast. And one of the co-hosts of that fundraising dinner for Joe Biden was this guy Steve Cozen, who founded the union busting law firm Cozen O’Connor. So you know, you can’t serve two masters. You know, you can’t make nice with union busting law firms and take their money, and, in fact, be a union supporter.
The main issue, the main problem for Biden, in my view, is NAFTA. And this gets at something that Kamau raised in the earlier segment, which is how do you win working class votes? And I co-produced a documentary called Corporate Coup d’Etat, where we sent a reporting team into Ohio, Youngstown, Ohio, the sacrifice zone, former steel town. And we talked to all these white working class people, former union people, who had voted twice for Obama, voted for Bernie over Hillary in the primary, and then they switched to vote for Trump. And the main reason that people in Ohio, Michigan, western Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, questioned Hillary Clinton back in 2016 is the same reason Trump will make sure they question Biden if he’s the nominee, which is he supported NAFTA. NAFTA drove down wages and drove jobs to Mexico and other countries. And it’s something that I don’t know how you get past, because Trump is going to make that the issue if it’s Trump versus Biden. The issue will be NAFTA. NAFTA hurt working class people in this country of all races.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now, Kamau, let me ask you, in regard to appealing to working class white voters like Jeff just said, Biden has an interesting history in maybe not crossing picket lines, but also not sticking his neck out for striking workers. And it’s–I’d like to get your opinion on how Biden deals with the fact that in 2011, for example, during the Verizon strike, when Biden went on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, the workers in that area wanted him to just give them a show of support. You know, he’s supposed to be a union man. But Biden didn’t respond to those workers who were striking with Verizon. And that same year in Wisconsin, labor leaders asked Biden to rally with them in resistance to Scott Walker and the Right to Work legislation, which was ultimately successful. And again, Biden the union man didn’t show up. How do white working class voters align support for Biden with this kind of record? And do they?
KAMAU FRANKLN: I think early on what Biden has over the other Democratic candidates is name recognition, and an association with President Obama, who, whether you like his policies or not, left the office a fairly popular president; particularly, again, with black and brown working class people. And I think Biden has that sort of halo effect for now that he’s using towards his advantage. So he seems electable. He seems likable. And he comes off with a tough guy image who would take Trump on. But don’t think any of that really goes to the heart of Biden’s middle of the road mishmash politics, which are not really about taking a stand on anything significant, but basically sticking his finger in the air, it’s feeling which way the wind blows, and then deciding those are going to be his policy stances. I think Biden has recently gone back on, and probably rightfully so, on his support for the Hyde Amendment. He’s got to apologize in terms of the Anita Hill hearings. And there’s going to be several other things that Biden’s going to have to come out and oppose that he once supported, including probably at some point NAFTA.
So I think as we get closer into this race you’re going to have people taking a closer look at Biden. And I think once he has to stand next to a Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, who have better politics, domestically speaking, and internationally, except for Elizabeth Warren on the issue of Israel and Palestine. I think he’s going to come back to Earth, and I think this race is going to get leveled off a little bit. And I think more progressive candidates who can make somewhat of a difference, like Sanders and potentially Warren, will start to take a larger role, to take a better–have better poll numbers. And I think working class white voters will go with it.
I think the problem that those two candidates have, briefly, is that they need to find ways to have better ins with working class black and brown voters who, apparently, they don’t have enough of a track record and have not done enough work in those communities to make those communities trust that these folks are going to talk particularly or specifically about the issues concerning black communities.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I’m glad you brought up black communities because it’s interesting–and I want to get your reflection on this, Jeff–that what it seems that is happening is exactly what you said, Kamau, that maybe Biden is coasting on the, what you call the Obama halo effect, because he was the vice president in the Obama administration for eight years, and there’s still a lot of positivity toward the Obama administration in the Democratic Party among the base. But then when you look at Biden’s policies, not just in regard to unions and his lack of real support for them in supporting unions against union busting, but also in legislation, but also his track record in regard to the 2005 bankruptcy bill, which rewarded creditors and punishment to debtors, which is one of the reasons we have such crushing student debt today. He was one of the main legislative architects of mass incarceration through the ’94 crime bill. So even among working class white voters, there are other issues like NAFTA and his support for the TPP that might wear thin when they start to vet his record. Jeff, is there going to be a coalition that builds around vetting Biden’s record that’s going to drag this momentum that he seems to be coasting on with his campaign?
JEFF COHEN: Well, Roots Action has put out a fact sheet that was distributed by the thousands at the recent California Democratic Party convention, where almost all the candidates showed up except Biden, and one news report after another in mainstream media pointed out that Biden wasn’t there. But here was a fact sheet about his record, and everything that you or I or Kamau has raised about his record. The bankruptcy bill is in that fact sheet. So Roots Action has started a Biden fact squad. And we found that the the support that Biden has among Democrats and among progressives is inversely proportional to how much they know about his actual record, because his record is one of serving corporate interests, the credit card companies that have hurt working class people of all colors, the banks. And then his support for international trade. I mean, these multinational corporations wanted NAFTA. They wanted the Trans-Pacific Partnership that Obama and Biden were supporting up through the end of 2016. And trust me, from our interviews of working class white voters who had supported Obama in Ohio, all they’re going to hear from Trump is about NAFTA.
And then they’re going to hear Trump talking about the bankruptcy bill and how, you know, Trump will be able, again, if he runs against Biden, just like when he ran against Hillary Clinton, he will be able to pretend to be this populist who stands up for the worker against the coziness of corporations with the Democrats, and Biden, I think, will really be hurt. Mainstream media pundits have no clue about it. But we went and interviewed Ohio voters who’d voted for Obama, flipped to Trump, and I really believe there’s a lot of arguments that Trump will use to try to keep those swing voters in his column. I’m not talking about Trump fanatics. I’m talking about swing voters who would likely swing to a Bernie or a Warren if they heard a pro-working class program being enunciated by the Democratic presidential nominee.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now, I want to end with you, Kamau, about what Biden has said about his working class roots that actually exposes his weakness there. And it piggybacks on what Jeff said about him really not having a clear working class base or ideology, or certainly not having a working class track record. Biden has said in a speech to a union group in March, in my neighborhood you grew up to be either a firefighter, or a cop, a tradesman, or a priest. Who is he talking to here? When we’re talking about just–not just working class white voters, because let’s expand this to all working class people. Who is he talking to when he’s saying that people in his neighborhood grew up to be a firefighter, or a cop, a priest, or a tradesman? Is he excluding people? And are people able to pick up on a kind of level of, let’s say, aristocracy of labor, or of working class people in that comment? Kamau, what’s your thoughts on that?
KAMAU FRANKLN: Well, I think one of the problems with American politics in general is the policies themselves are never looked at as as closely as the candidate’s ability to be likeable and/or ability to connect with voters, per se. So I think Biden gets away with at least attempting to come off like a down guy who you want to have a beer with, who, you know, doesn’t always get his words right, but you know, he’s earnest, he’s heartfelt. And I think he tries to push that forward. But again I think, as Jeff has mentioned, his policies, even within the Obama administration, the Obama’s administration policies were not always pro-union. They were middle of the road policies. They favored corporations over working class people. I think Biden has been that type of politician for most of his career. And I think sort of the rhetoric of that “I stand for working class people and that these particular types of jobs are open to everybody and anybody” I think shows that he’s out of touch with what people are doing to survive. People are now into the gig economy. They’re working two jobs, three jobs to make ends meet. Folks are not necessarily looking at police jobs or firemen jobs as this sort of mass entrance into working class lifestyles.
So I think Biden, in terms of the political rhetoric, believes this is what’s going to get him over the hump or connect him to voters. But again, when you take a hard look at policy, as Jeff’s study has done, you’re going to see that Biden does not match up to that rhetoric, does not match up to his actual record on standing with working class people whether black, white, Latino, or other.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Well, I’m sure that the rest of this campaign season is going to be interesting, especially with Joe Biden in the race. It’s going to be interesting to see how his campaign continues to rise or fall. And we’re going to have to leave this discussion here, though. So, Jeff Cohen, thank you so much for joining me.
JEFF COHEN: Thank you.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And, Kamau Franklin, thank you for joining me.
KAMAU FRANKLN: Thank you so much.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.