Flattering the audience is one of the handiest tools a person has when giving a speech. It’s a simple way to establish a positive tone and put the listeners on the speaker’s side. That was presumably what President Joe Biden was trying to do Tuesday when he told the AFL-CIO’s convention in Philadelphia, “You guys don’t understand—You don’t—I don’t think you appreciate how critically important you are.”
Suffice to say, it was not an applause line. Union members, like anyone else, don’t like being told “you don’t understand” when they in fact do understand. The whole point of the AFL-CIO’s convention, after all, is to emphasize how important the labor movement is to workers and the rest of the country.
There wasn’t any negative reaction to Biden’s comment. The AFL-CIO’s members presumably thought he meant well. The audience just remained quiet instead. Biden barreled ahead with his remarks.
The weird moment sums the president’s odd relationship with organized labor. The self-described “Blue Collar Joe” has long claimed to greatly admire unions and Tuesday vowed to be “the most pro-union president in the history of the United States.” But he has never been a union member himself, having spent his entire adult life in public office. His view of unions is heavily romanticized but out of touch with the experiences of actual workers. This lack of perspective sometimes comes across.
At one point in his AFL-CIO speech, Biden vowed that he was going to build grain silos. … in Ukraine. He said this would allow the grain to be transferred to “into [rail]cars in Europe, and get it out to the ocean, and get it across the world.” The promise was made in the context of fixing the global economy, but it was still an odd comment to make to an organization dedicated to preserving jobs in the U.S. and limiting trade that competes with U.S. producers.
Biden clearly sees himself as an advocate for the working man. “We went to work with an economic vision that looks out from Scranton, Pennsylvania—hardworking towns like it all across America—not down from Wall Street,” he said.
The president’s vision is to create union-only jobs and force workers to join up. “You know, when Franklin Roosevelt passed the NLRB, it didn’t say you can’t have unions. It said we should encourage unions. That’s what the NLRB says. It’s a big difference,” Biden said. He was confusing the National Labor Relations Act, a law, with the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency created by the law. In any case, the president’s claim regarding the law is inaccurate. The NLRA’s author wanted the government to be neutral.
Boosting union membership is what the AFL-CIO and others in the labor movement want as well, so that comment at least went over well. The legislation that Biden touted to boost union membership, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, does so mainly by stripping individual workers of the right to decide for themselves whether they want to belong to a union.
Left unsaid was the question, “Why is this prodding necessary?” With union membership down to 6.3 percent of the workforce, it would seem that many workers are voting with their feet. Shouldn’t an advocate for those workers be asking them why they’re doing it? Shouldn’t joining a union be the workers’ own choice?