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Analysis | Biden wants support from the working class, but especially if it is organized


President Biden’s State of the Union address was intended to appeal to as many Americans as possible. That is neither a revealing comment nor a surprising one; he is a politician trying to build political support – and building political support is about presenting policy proposals that appeal to voters. (Of course, irate rants in the partisan media, too, but that’s less Biden’s style than that of some in the audience Tuesday night.)

So the president outlined a whole bunch of run-of-the-mill Jane ideas: more jobs, limiting arbitrary corporate fees, making insulin affordable, things like that.

“Too many of you lie in bed at night, like my dad did, staring at the ceiling and wondering what the hell happens when your partner gets cancer, or your kid gets deathly ill, or something happens to you,” he said. Biden. “What are you going to do – do you have the money to pay those medical bills?” Or should you sell the house or try to get a second mortgage on it?”

While outlining these policies aimed at empowering the working class, Biden wrapped them in a pointy envelope. There should be more and better jobs, but there should also be more union jobs. Because Biden, a longtime ally of the labor movement, understands well the difference between support from working Americans and organized support from them.

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The first guest introduced to Biden during his speech was a woman named Saria Gwin-Maye. Biden boasted of passing legislation aimed at improving US infrastructure, and Gwin-Maye was hailed as one of the workers who would work to replace a notoriously dilapidated bridge over the Ohio River. But Gwin-Maye isn’t just any blue-collar worker. She is a trade unionist, a member of Ironworkers Local 44.

Similarly, Biden not only argued that the country should “ensure that working parents can afford to start a family with sick days, paid medical leave for family members, and affordable childcare.” He did this immediately after touting the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, legislation that would make it easier for workers to form unions.

He left Washington on Wednesday to continue advocating for his administration’s efforts on the economy. He traveled to Wisconsin, where he spoke to members of the Laborers’ International Union. A banner on the wall read, “Union Strong.”

The reason why this is important is no secret. Political parties exist largely as repositories of power; even if Biden leaves, the party collectively still holds power through its other elected officials and its registered members. The party survives even as candidates and voters come and go. The party’s power, meanwhile, is such that it allows for the election of individuals as president—something virtually unattainable outside the party.

Unions exist for a similar reason: there is aggregate power that does not depend on individual employees or even individual workplaces. The weight of the trade union can be exerted in organizing fights, and the weight of the labor movement in general can be exerted on employers – or politicians.

Traditionally, unions have supported Democratic candidates. That’s largely because Republicans have typically been the party of entrepreneurs, the natural enemies of unions. But this relationship has become strained over time. Union members have often missed college, and college attendance is increasingly correlated with support for Democratic candidates. So over time, the partisan gap between members of union households has narrowed.

Some Republicans, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), see an opportunity here: Supporting union members who agree with the GOP on cultural issues could help strengthen the party’s base. The party’s growing hostility to companies advocating for issues such as diversity meant that when Amazon employees wanted to organize, Rubio sided with the workers, not the company. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Unions still retain the ability to influence their members in a number of ways. The labor movement is also effective in rejecting its members, a group that is still democratic. So for Biden and his party, it’s helpful to strengthen unions because that institutional strength is still beneficial. Put another way, unions are probably better at convincing their members to vote for Biden than Biden is.

But union membership continues to decline. There was a slight increase during the pandemic, when union workers were better protected against mass layoffs. But in 2022, the percentage of workers who were unionized or represented by unions was the lowest ever recorded.

This is the downside of Biden’s focus on unions: by working hard to strengthen them, he helps his party, but he also helps the unions, increasing loyalty to Democratic candidates.

This is a long-term alliance. That is probably why Biden focuses so heavily on unions. There are few politicians in America more old-fashioned than Joe Biden, and few more Democratic priorities more old-fashioned than strengthening the party’s relationship with the working class.

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