WASHINGTON - Flanked by cranes and shipyard workers, President Joe Biden made the pitch Thursday that unions will be building America's renewable energy future — a courtship of organized labor at a moment when some major unions are weighing strikes that could disrupt the growth he wants to campaign on in 2024.
The president toured the Philly Shipyard, where there was a steel-cutting ceremony for the Acadia, a vessel that will help to build offshore wind farms. Biden ticked through the various union jobs being created by the project, promoting a message he has started to amplify as he seeks a second term.
"A lot of my friends in organized labor know, when I think climate, I think jobs," the president said. "Union workers are the best in the world."
But tensions are rising between unions and companies about a rapidly evolving economy in which artificial intelligence, clean energy and e-commerce are rewriting some of the basic rules of work. Biden is trying to allay those concerns by saying unions should be a part of the way ahead. But the Democratic president also knows from past experience that a strike could harm his reelection chances.
Biden has long called on businesses to hire unionized workers, saying that the premium paid will lead to higher quality work. Companies, however, seem reluctant to meet unions' terms in separate contract talks with script writers, actors, autoworkers and UPS employees.
Hollywood production is shut down as the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild are striking, partially over concerns about streaming revenues as well as AI taking away jobs from creative workers. The strike has put TV shows and movies in limbo.
The United Auto Workers are starting contract talks, and members say they expect a possible strike. They want to ensure there are union protections at new battery plants for electric vehicles. The union contract expires before midnight on Sept. 14.
The Teamsters are threatening a strike by 340,000 UPS workers if a deal is not reached with the delivery company by July 31. As more Americans shop online, UPS drivers say they need air conditioning in more trucks and equal pay for weekend shifts. Teamsters President Sean O'Brien has asked Biden not to get in the middle of negotiations.
Biden administration officials say that unions are empowered to press for more benefits and better pay because of the strong job market. Unemployment is a low 3.6%, and job openings are relatively high. The White House says that Biden's policies have created these conditions.
But a series of strikes could also sink the U.S. economy and Biden's message to voters.
Last year, the administration hustled to forge a tentative agreement between rail companies and their unionized workers to avoid a strike that could have injured the economy before the midterm elections. The tentative deal prevented a strike, but it failed to appease workers, and Congress ultimately had to intervene by imposing an agreement.
When asked if an autoworkers or Teamsters strike could similarly threaten growth, administration officials declined to speculate and said only that the president believes in the right of collective bargaining for workers.
Biden spent part of this week focused on efforts to expand unionization into new industries. On Monday, he met with younger workers trying to unionize at Starbucks, minor league baseball, bus-maker Blue Bird and Sega. Labor Department data shows that workers under age 35 are much less likely to belong to a union than their older peers, meaning that the future of the union movement might depend on bringing in younger generations.
Unions also aided Biden's election victory over President Donald Trump in 2020. Just 16% of voters in 2020 lived in a union household. But 56% of people in union households backed Biden for president against Trump, a Republican, according to AP VoteCast.
Union votes generally matter more in Northern states with an industrial legacy such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, key states for a Democrat seeking to win the electoral college. But there are few union votes in sunbelt states such as Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina, where Biden hopes to compete in 2024 and where many of the investments in new computer chip and battery plants are being made.
Samantha Smith, strategic adviser for clean energy jobs at the AFL-CIO, said it’s important for the shift away from fossil fuels to not come at the expense of workers, arguing the goals of renewable energy and higher pay need to be complementary goals, not competing ones. Smith said unions have confidence that the manufacturing, infrastructure and energy investments under Biden will lead to more union jobs.
"First of all, we do have the most union-friendly president that anyone can remember — that’s why we endorsed him early," Smith said. "We have a lot of confidence in this president and his ability to turn more than $1 trillion of investments — including in clean energy — into union jobs."