Joe Biden’s choice of Pittsburgh as the site for his first campaign rally reflects, among other things, the central role that he hopes organized labor will play in his bid for the White House.
And he got a chance to send that message hours before the late-afternoon rally itself, when he picked up his first union endorsement from the International Association of Firefighters.
"Joe’s a lot like our firefighters. He’s a problem-solver who cares deeply about America, and committed to making our country better," said IAFF General Presdient Harold A. Schaitberger in a videotaped statement released early Monday morning.
In a note that the Biden campaign itself will likely be sounding throughout the campaign, Schaitberger also lauded him as a person to heal an increasingly partisan divide in the country.
“Joe Biden, through decency and civility, will enhance the political discourse that our country needs right now, truly believing that we must be united and stand together as Americans,” he said in the statement.
Schaitberger spoke with WESA after appearing on a round of morning talk shows from the IAFF's union local in Hazelwood. He said that the firefighters' early endorsement stemmed from "loyalty. Who's been there for us? Who's had our back? Who's helped to ensure that our staffing is solid, that our wages are a fair living wage? Who's protected our retirements? Joe Biden has a 40-year track record of performing on behalf of firefighters, working families, union members, and it was an easy decision."
Schaitberger cited Biden's support for survivor's benefits for families of firefighters who die on the job, as well as overtime protections and grants to fund firefighters in econmoic hard times.
As for the other candidates in the field, Schaitberger said that “anybody that puts themselves forward I have great admiration for," but added, "I am concerned about the Democratic Party, and those nominees that are taking this party far toto the left. I admire high-minded aspirational ideals, but that is not a recipe to win. In order to win, you’ve got to be able to touch the workers and the voters right here in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsion, Iowa." A hardcore progressive, he said, "may get enormous turnout on both coasts, but that doesn’t translate into 270 electoral votes to elect a president."
Among the issues he expressed concern about were plans to forgive student-loan debt incurred by college graduates. "For those who go through their apprenticeship rograms and work in the trades, those that work in the mills, those that ride rigs in the fire department -- I believe they would take great issue with those that want to pay off a $1.5 trillion debt for college loans for college that they were never able to attend."
The IAFF sat out the 2016 election and didn't make an endorsement largely because "our members were not felt connected to, or spoken to be Hillary Clinton," Schaitberger said. But "this year we have a candidate that has such a clear, strong track record, that even our most hardened Republican and conservative members will have to I believe at least acknowledge that support, even if they choose not to vote for it.”
President Trump, whose 2016 campaign was fueled by support from white working class voters struck a characteristic note in response to the endorsement. "The Dues Sucking firefighters leadership will always support Democrats, even though the membership wants me," he tweeted Monday morning.
The IAFF represents more than 316,000 firefighters and paramedics in the United States and Canada. Its political action committee, FIREPAC, is also a force to be reckoned with: It spent roughly $5.6 million on behalf of state and federal candidates and committees in 2016, and slightly more than that in 2018. Most of that benefited Democrats. But Schaitberger said its real strength was in its mebmership. "We are every place there’s a blinking light or a traffic light. And we have members that are part of the very fabric of the community ... and their voice has resonance."
The union’s endorsement of Biden Monday was no surprise. Schaitberger has been among Biden’s most vocal early supporters, and the local chapter of the AFL-CIO announced last Thursday that he’d be visiting Pittsburgh for a worker’s memorial event taking place downtown at noon.
Darrin Kelly, who heads up the Allegheny Fayette Central Labor Council, has his own IAFF roots, having been a city firefighter himself. As the head of a labor organization that represents another 100,000 union households in the region, he remains neutral until the AFL-CIO makes an endorsement. But it’s no accident that there is a photo of Biden -- taken during a stop Biden made on behalf of Democratic Congressional candidate Conor Lamb last year -- on his office wall.
“We have a lot of candidates that have done a lot for labor,” Kelly told WESA last week. But Biden, a native son of Scranton, was in a different category.
“We all come from the same mold: Joe just never forgot where he came from,” Kelly said. “He has always ran upon the platform of the middle class, the platform of working families. You don’t forget that.”
Kelly said Pittsburgh was a natural first stop for Biden’s fledgling effort: “You have a combination of people that are a little old school. You have new ideas [and] you have people who still believe in the basics of FDR politics.”
“When you win this area, you win elections,” Kelly added, and he should know: He led labor’s campaign on behalf of Lamb and Democrat Pam Iovino, who won a special election in the state Senate’s 37th district this spring. Those wins came after Trump won Pennsylvania, and the election, in 2016 -- which Kelly describes as a wake-up call.
“I’m not afraid to admit that,” he said. “I believe some areas were forgotten. We will never let them behind again.”
Kelly says Biden, like Lamb, is positioned to do well in both working-class areas and suburbs. The Biden message, he said, begins with a unifying economic message -- on needs like investing in infrastructure -- that voters in all areas can rally behind.
“There has to be agreement on things that connect everyone,” says Kelly.
Biden has long been popular with local workers: Workers chanted, “Run Joe, Run” during a 2015 Labor Day parade he marched in here. And the affection is obviously reciprocated: Biden visited the Pittsburgh area three times last year alone, including a book-tour stop, a doubleheader rally for Lamb, and marching in the city’s Labor Day parade. During the 2016 election season, he appeared at campaign rallies and on college campuses to raise awareness of sexual assault.
“Joe Biden loves Pittsburgh. He tells us that every time he’s here,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
Peduto is not endorsing anyone yet, though he acknowledges an affinity for Pete Buttigieg, a fellow mayor from South Bend, Ind. But he said Biden “understands the absolute necessity of winning Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin if we are to elect the next president. And I think he’s trying to show himself as the left-to-center candidate in a field that has many running to the far left. And I think he institutionalizes that with his visit to Pittsburgh -- that he’s the person that can bridge not only the Greenfield vote, but the Greene County vote.”