In a Democratic primary where candidates have lashed corporations and praised workers, presidential hopefuls have started a furious push for union support.
Ahead of his first official campaign event Monday at a union hall in Pittsburgh — a city associated with blue-collar work — former Vice President Joe Biden secured the first major endorsement of the primary. The roughly 300,000-member International Association of Firefighters backed Biden on Monday. In a video, IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger called the former vice president "one of the staunchest advocates for working families."
Biden's rivals want a similar seal of approval from organized labor as America's largest unions start deciding who to back. While union membership — and the organizations' political clout — have dropped in recent decades, Democrats' efforts to woo labor show a constituency that still carries weight in a party increasingly tailoring its message to workers.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who have railed against alleged corporate mistreatment of workers more than any other Democratic presidential candidates, are considered two of the top contenders for union support. Other Democrats, including Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, have made plays for labor backing.
It sets up a rush within the Democratic field to secure support from major unions, nearly all of which have not endorsed a candidate yet. The National Education Association — the largest union in the country, with 3 million members — told CNBC it has not yet decided who to endorse. Other large unions affected by President Donald Trump's trade policies, such as United Steelworkers and United Autoworkers, also say they have not chosen who to back.
Organized labor has historically leaned toward supporting Democrats, and unions have more than 20 to choose from in the presidential primary. Who the groups and their members support could in part hinge on whether candidates backed trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which not only Trump but also liberals including Sanders and Warren have slammed as devastating for American workers.
Trump has supported right-to-work laws, GOP-backed measures that allow people to work in unionized companies without joining a union and paying dues. Appearing to respond to the IAFF's endorsement of Biden on Monday, Trump shrugged off the need for support from union brass and contended that lower-ranking members will vote for him.
"I'll never get the support of Dues Crazy union leadership, those people who rip-off their membership with ridiculously high dues, medical and other expenses while being paid a fortune. But the members love Trump," the president wrote in a tweet.
In a follow-up tweet, he argued that "The Dues Sucking firefighters leadership will always support Democrats, even though the membership wants me."
Biden responded in a tweet with a defense of labor unions: "I'm sick of this President badmouthing unions. Labor built the middle class in this country. Minimum wage, overtime pay, the 40-hour week: they exist for all of us because unions fought for those rights."
Democrats have always vied for electoral support from unions. But a focus on workers has shown even more clearly in policy and campaign strategy this year.
The vast majority of Democrats in the 2020 race have sworn off contributions from corporate political action committees. The field has broadly endorsed a $15 per hour minimum wage and more robust benefits packages for workers. Candidates have railed against right-to-work laws.
The focus on unions showed from the start of the campaign. Sanders' campaign workers formed a union, while former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro also pledged to let his campaign unionize. Candidates such as Klobuchar highlighted union members from their families in campaign launch speeches.
One opportunity to appeal to unions arrived earlier this month, when workers from the grocery chain Stop & Shop went on strike in New England. Various candidates sent messages of support to the workers.
Biden rallied in Massachusetts with workers. Warren stopped by a picket line with Dunkin' donuts in tow, reportedly telling workers that "unions will be rebuilding America's middle class."
Securing support from labor could give any candidate a boost in a primary marked by candidates' efforts to cast themselves as the most friendly to workers.
Democrats hope to regain their footing with union members after Trump performed better with them than recent GOP candidates had. Democrat Hillary Clinton enjoyed only an 8 percentage-point edge among union households in 2016, according to exit polling data. In 2012, President Barack Obama won union households by 18 percentage points.
The president's success relative to other Republicans could relate to his trade policy. He slammed both NAFTA and the U.S. trade relationship with China, arguing globalization damaged U.S. manufacturing workers. The Trump administration is pushing to get a revised North American trade deal through Congress and strike a new agreement with China.
While current or former union members may have helped Trump squeak out key victories in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016, signs suggest their support could waver. The president's approval rating among union members dropped 15 percentage points from March 2017 to March 2018, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Biden secured the first major union endorsement among the Democrats trying to challenge Trump. But it remains to be seen whether workers more influenced by trade policy will get behind the former vice president.
Biden voted to ratify NAFTA as a senator in 1993, while Sanders voted against the deal in the House. As part of the Obama administration, Biden supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sprawling free-trade agreement that Trump withdrew U.S. support from during his early days in office.
Sanders, Warren, Booker, Klobuchar and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., all voted against giving Obama the authority to expedite TPP negotiations in 2015.
The Biden campaign did not immediately respond to a request to comment on whether the former vice president's trade stances could hurt his bid to win more union endorsements.
In responding to the firefighters union's endorsement of Biden on Monday, the Republican Party of Pennsylvania tried to appeal to workers in the state. The state GOP released a statement from Jim Gaffney of Goshen Mechanical Contractors, a services and construction company in eastern Pennsylvania. He said that "times are better for the labor unions I contract with than they ever were under the failed Obama-Biden recovery."