Social Security, PRO Act, pensions top Teamsters interviews with Biden
President Joe Biden at Teamsters headquarters in Washington. | @Teamsters via Twitter (X)

WASHINGTON—Social Security, saving workers’ pensions, and passing the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act were top topics as the Teamsters—led by reform President Sean O’Brien and rank-and-file members—interviewed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

The hour-long March 12 session at Teamsters headquarters at the foot of Capitol Hill occurred just before Biden swept the Mississippi primary, clinching his nomination for a second White House term. His Republican foe, ex-Oval Office denizen Donald Trump, also clinched the nomination on March 12.

The Teamsters endorsement is important and not just because the union has 1.3 million members. Though it has 360 locals nationwide, its heaviest concentrations are in Midwestern swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Ohio.

In addition, although the Teamsters now represent a wide range of workers—from airline mechanics to graphic artists to railroad engineers to warehouse workers—the heart of the union is still in truckers, the prototypical blue-collar guys both Biden and Trump are wooing.

They’re also the group that defected in droves to Trump in 2016 and, to a lesser degree, in 2020.

The union endorsed Democrats Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020, but late. But union members in the Midwest swing states voted 52% for Trump over Clinton in 2016 before swinging back to Biden four years later.

The union’s meeting with Biden followed a January session with Trump, who faces multiple federal and state charges, especially for aiding and abetting the Jan. 6, 2021, coup attempt at the Capitol.

That topic never came up in either meeting. Nor did Trump’s threat to become a dictator. Nor did Biden’s foreign policy controversies, including continuing military aid to Israel—which uses the funds to buy U.S.-made planes, bombs, and ammo—and Ukraine. U.S. war materiel firms, such as Boeing and GE, benefit.

O’Brien said the two meetings are part of a “normal” nominating process for the union. It will culminate, after surveys of members and roundtables at Teamsters locals, in an endorsement after the two parties’ conventions in July (Republican) and late August (Democratic).

“In addition to ongoing nationwide polling, the international union will be working with our 360 affiliates to coordinate town halls around the country to ensure all members are included in one of the most important decisions any organization can make this year,” O’Brien tweeted.

O’Brien drew flak in January from the Twitterverse for meeting Trump at all, given the Republican’s strident anti-worker words and actions and his party’s hatred of unions and workers. This time, O’Brien drew flak from executive board member John Palmer for taking too much time to decide. Others, including wired-in members of Teamsters for a Democratic Union—the reform group that helped fuel O’Brien’s late 2021 presidential win—voiced the same views.

A veteran Teamster, who has been a reformer within the union for decades, told People’s World that O’Brien arranged the earlier meeting with Trump “to appease the Trump supporters by giving him (Trump) the opportunity” for an interview and question-and-answer period with members.

“There’s nothing for them at the other end” from Trump, the veteran said. “I can’t see them going to the dark side.”

“That he really understood the depth and detail of things was impressive,” Palmer told Politico. Palmer had skipped the meeting with Trump in protest.

“There were several people who felt that we shouldn’t play around with this, and that we should do it sooner rather than later.” Palmer said. “They understand the stark difference between a guy who’s anti-union and a guy who justifiably deserves the title of most pro-union president in my lifetime.

“Every day matters, especially about getting in front of the membership and explaining to them why. I mean, the differences couldn’t be any more stark.”

Biden spent much of the meeting contrasting himself with Trump, though not by name. The president vowed to protect Social Security and Medicare, on the same day Trump said the two programs can be cut and “there’s a lot of waste and mismanagement in them.”

“Aw, c’mon, man,” was Biden’s response to that when discussing Trump’s claim.

Biden also played up walking a picket line with the Auto Workers in Michigan and pushing the PRO Act, which would remove many corporate and Republican-engineered obstacles to union organizing. The same day Biden picketed—before the Michigan primary—Trump played rent-a-crowd with lying “Auto Workers for Trump” signs at a Michigan non-union auto parts shop.

And Biden reminded the Teamsters he strongly supported the Butch Lewis Act, crafted by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, with union legislative representatives. It saves joint labor-management multiemployer pension plans that the 2008-09 financier-caused Great Recession financially clobbered.

The GOP response in the dead of night in late 2014 was to save them with a law ordering pension trustees cut current pension payouts by up to 40%. The Butch Lewis Act reversed that and requires ailing plans to submit revival strategies, without cuts, to Biden’s Treasury Department for an OK.

If Treasury approves their reorganization plans, the multi-employer pensions get federal loan guarantees, with payback terms over decades. The largest plan to benefit is the Teamsters Central and Southern States Pension Fund. It got a $36 million loan guarantee. The GOP called the Lewis Act “a big union bailout,” ignoring workers and families who, by its law, lost thousands of dollars each.

The day before Biden’s session, a campaign spokesman said the president would also emphasize his executive orders strengthening union protections, since Senate Republican filibuster threats and two renegade Democrats sank the PRO Act. And Biden would also tout his “Buy American” provisions in legislation, including tax subsidies for buyers of union-built electric vehicles.

That’s of interest to the Teamsters, too. They have so many drivers whose trucks carry cars from assembly plants to dealers that the union has a separate carhaul division just for them.

While O’Brien wouldn’t commit to a pre-convention endorsement, he gave Biden a favorable review.

“There’s no dispute that President Biden has been great for unions, especially the Teamsters,” he told the Associated Press, citing Biden’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and the pension aid.

“But like everything else we do, there’s always room for improvement. There’s always a threat to organized labor, so we want to be proactive and make certain every candidate—not just President Biden—understands how important our issues are.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.