Don't be fooled: Joe Biden is no friend of unions

In San Francisco there’s a high-end boutique called “Unionmade”. There you will find expensive work jackets and overalls, lit by bare bulbs and displayed on unvarnished metal shelves. The aesthetic could not convey its message any more clearly: buy these clothes, and access a bygone era of authenticity and American craftsmanship. But it’s a lie – the clothes on offer are largely not union-made. “The unfortunate reality is that there are not many unions left in the garment industry and so the name was cultivated as a signifier of well-made and aesthetically timeless goods,” explains a spokesperson.

As the industrial working class has faded, its afterimage has become available for appropriation in commerce, in culture and in politics. Such appropriation need not entail commitment to the workers’ movement. Everyone from Levi’s jeans to Donald Trump has made this move – and now, Joe Biden, the would-be candidate of labor.

Biden is the Unionmade of politicians. The former vice-president is taking great care to dress up his new candidacy in a blue-collar costume; as Andrew Epstein puts it, he is an “aesthetic populist”. His kickoff rally was on Monday in a union hall in Pittsburgh, where the president of the United Steelworkers of America promised his members would be present “wearing their USW gear”.

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), whose president has long been close to Biden, has endorsed him. Bob Casey, the Pennsylvania senator of the old New Deal variety (anti-abortion, pro-labor), chimes in that Biden has an “electric” connection with “old-school union guys”.

Related: Whoa there Democrats – Joe Biden isn’t as electable as you think | Richard Wolffe

When he was considering running in 2016, CNN observed, “Joe Biden’s relationship with America’s working men and women is at the core of his political soul.” Yet the idea that Biden is some kind of working-class hero has no discernible substance. Like the myth on the right that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an empty-headed idiot, it’s pure projection – though one that he’s at great pains to encourage.

To be sure, Biden is a nominally pro-union liberal. Like any Democrat, he won’t cross a picket line. He loves to talk in union halls. He’s always saying things like, “There’s an old saying – all men are created equal but then a few became firefighters,” and “The best place for me to be my whole career is surrounded by organized labor. And I know how to say ‘union’.”

The notional blue-collar appeal of Joe from hard-luck Scranton was widely understood to be one of the main reasons that Barack Obama – famously the effete “wine track” candidate – selected him as a running mate. But where does this appeal come from? Biden’s not a scion of wealth, but he grew up in the middle class: his father was a used-car salesman, not a factory worker.

At no point in his career has Biden proven willing to take the slightest political risk on behalf of workers. His appearances in union halls occur when he needs something from labor. On the other hand, when Biden went to vacation in the Hamptons during the 2011 Verizon strike, workers in the area sought him out “just to possibly get a show of support, a thumb’s-up, a head nod, anything” – to no avail. That same year in Wisconsin, labor leaders specifically asked Biden to come to rally their resistance to the brutal, ultimately successful attack by Scott Walker; Biden declined.

In fact, I can find reports of only two instances of Biden appearing on a picket line or otherwise supporting embattled workers at any point in his very long public life: once in Iowa, during his 1987 presidential campaign, and just this month in Boston. Now, his first major presidential fundraiser is being hosted by the founder of one of the country’s leading anti-union law firms. The man running to be labor’s champion is sponsored by someone who has made millions choking the life out of the labor movement.

Nor does Biden have a public policy record favorable to the working class. In 1977-1978, during unions’ big push for labor law reform, he vacillated for months and sabotaged the proposal with public criticism. He voted for Nafta and supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He authored the punishing 2005 bankruptcy bill, a reward to creditors and punishment to debtors. Worse still, he has been one of the main legislative architects of mass incarceration, a regime that has devastated the heavily policed and punished American working class.

But this brings us to the real substance of the problem. Biden would surely not recognize the targets of mass incarceration as members of what he imagines as the “working class”. As he put it in a speech to the IAFF in March, “In my neighborhood you grew up either to be a firefighter or a cop, a tradesman or a priest.” This stratum is what has often been called the “aristocracy of labor”. These occupations and their unions have historically been hostile to women and people of color and de facto segregated. They are more economically comfortable and politically conservative than the rest of the working class, and are notorious for pursuing their own immediate interests over broader working-class solidarity. The building trades, for instance, have played a central role in leading organized labor’s opposition to the Green New Deal.

When Biden cracked a joke several weeks ago about his habit of touching women without consent, he was speaking to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. While the IBEW today takes a strong public stand for workplace equality, both the union and the industry have deep histories of ignoring sexual harassment and racial discrimination. According to a 2013 study, only one-quarter of women in the building trades believe they are equally respected on the job. This context makes Biden’s joking about the accusation of a Latina before that particular crowd seem altogether more insidious. Harassment, after all, is nothing if not a workplace issue. You’d only joke about it to a union crowd if you didn’t think women were really workers.

But Biden’s vision of a better deal for labor is, explicitly, to turn back the clock. “There used to be a basic bargain in this country,” he is fond of saying. “All we’re trying to do is get it back to where we were.”

The unions that are considering supporting Biden are the blue-collar ones that were party to what he calls the “basic bargain” of mid-century. The leaders of those organizations were unnerved by how strongly Donald Trump ran among their members, and it is this anxiety that fuels their attraction to Biden, who they hope will do their persuasion work for them.

Unions closer to politicians than to their members are unions waiting to die. As labor’s fortunes have declined, so has the imaginative scope of many labor leaders. Each year of shrinking membership has driven them to behave more narrowly and defensively, to abandon the initiative.

This is all the worse in a moment that invites broad and radical vision. More workers went on strike in 2018 than in any year since 1986. Over 90% of those who did worked in either healthcare or education – sectors that were not included in the mid-century “basic bargain”.

What’s remarkable is that Biden’s proletarian minstrel act has worked for this long. When he dropped out of the 1988 presidential race, it was after getting caught plagiarizing a monologue by the British Labour party leader, Neil Kinnock, on his coalminer roots. Biden’s spokesperson explained that, while Biden had no immediate relations who were coalminers, the “people that his ancestors grew up with in the Scranton region, and in general the people of that region were coalminers.” In fact, Biden did have an ancestor in the coal industry, Patrick F Blewitt, who died in 1911. But he wasn’t a miner – he was a boss.

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