Six Democratic presidential candidates brought the heat after the International Brotherhood of Teamsters president James P. Hoffa said the candidates “better have a message for us” leading up to their union-focused forum Saturday in Cedar Rapids.
“I think the question is, as a Teamster, why should we vote for you?” Hoffa said, during a phone call with Starting Line earlier this week.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer and Sen. Bernie Sanders all took a shot at answering the question.
“The reason is, folks, look: I am, as my grandfather would say, labor from belt buckle to shoe sole,” Biden said. “Where I come from, I understand a very basic notion — Wall Street didn’t build the United States of America, the middle class built it, and unions built the middle class, unions.”
Biden answered questions about collective bargaining and pensions, explaining how he would protect unions in the future. He said employers spent $1 billion last year trying to stop unions from forming.
He said managers should be held personally responsible for union-busting activities, and pitched his plan to implement a fine on managers — not just corporations — who allow union-busting.
Booker made a heart-felt plea for union workers to give him their support.
“I tell people all the time that we as Democrats cannot run a presidential election about what we’re against, we need to get back to talking about what we’re for and who we’re for,” Booker said. “The call of this country right now for the Democratic Party is to unite Americans. I’m running for president because that is who I am, that is the values of this country that I was taught. That is the call of this moment.”
He later told the crowd everyone in the nation has the right to dignity, security and retirement, but currently “we’re a nation who says we aren’t going to stand with you until we drive you into poverty.”
He said he will fight for pensions and make sure Social Security payments keep up with the cost of retirement.
Klobuchar, the granddaughter of a Teamster, pitched her union ties to the crowd of union members.
“I wouldn’t be here without unions,” Klobuchar said. “I am before you today as the granddaughter of a Teamster and a union worker, the daughter of a union teacher and a union newspaperman, the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from the state of Minnesota and a candidate for president of the United States. That is what unions are about.”
Klobuchar used her time on stage to tell the group she was the only member of the Senate on the debate stage whose name was not on the “Medicare for All” bill.
“I didn’t get on it, as well intentioned as it is, because I read it and on page eight it basically says that people — 149 million workers, including a bunch of people in this room who are union members — would lose their health care,” Klobuchar said. “And I don’t think that’s a smart way to go.”
Klobuchar said the better plan was to implement a non-profit public option to bring down premiums.
Buttigieg promised union workers he would look past the stock market and focus on their well-being.
“I stand with organized labor in order to build up an economy that actually works for us, not just when the stock market’s looking good — that’s nice — but actually making sure that one job is enough,” Buttigieg said. “Actually making sure that working conditions meet our expectations and building up the middle class in this country.”
While on stage, Buttigieg also encouraged the union members to tune out any lawmaker who said there was no way to keep Social Security solvent without cuts to the program.
“That’s not true,” Buttigieg said.
He also pitched his plan to set up a public option 401k.
Steyer, the only non-politician on stage, took a direct approach to answering Hoffa’s question.
“If you’re asking me why you should support me, because you guys have always been my first, best and last partners and I will never walk away from the idea of living wage, the importance of organized labor — labor unions — to represent American workers,” Steyer said. “And the knowledge that what’s happened over the last 40 years is profoundly unfair and we should be fighting it and changing it on day one of an administration.”
Steyer took his own approach to solving the nation’s pension crisis.
As president, Steyer said he would create a government program to match money people set aside for retirement. The less a worker makes, the more the government will match, Steyer said.
Sanders shared his solid record of standing with unions while trying to convince the Teamsters to stand with him.
“I think at the end of the day, if you study the record, you will find that there is no candidate running for president of the United States who is more pro-labor than Bernie Sanders,” Sanders said. “I have been in the Congress, the House and the Senate for a long time. I have a pro-labor voting record of 100%.”
Sanders had yet another approach to protecting workers’ pensions, a question asked to each candidate at the forum.
“My secretary of treasury, under which this whole thing lies, will never allow a cut to a pension when that worker was promised a pension,” Sanders said.
Saving pensions was part of a three-point promise for all candidates vying for a Teamsters’ endorsement.
Stephanie Griffin, who works for the Local 238 in Cedar Rapids asked Sanders how he’d fight for workers pensions. He mentioned he’d support the Butch Lewis Act, which is something Griffin said was “spot on.”
“Bernie just hit the nail on the head,” she said.
Brendan Crowley, with the Local 743 in Chicago explained if the Butch Lewis Act doesn’t get passed, he will have to make cuts to his members’ pension security.
“Especially for someone living on a fixed income, any adjustment is really unsustainable,” Crowley said. “We’ve been beat up for a couple of decades and we’d like to start turning the tide now.”
Mildred Cross, with the Chicago Local 777, said many of her colleagues work from 6:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. just to make a living wage.
“It’s really important to them to have benefits,” she said.
Overall, Cross said she enjoyed the forum because she heard all of the things her union has been working on.
She has hope for the future, saying it’s been nice to see young people get more involved in the union.
“I’m in my twilight just about now, but I like to see the younger people coming along and to have something that they can give their children,” Cross said. “They can take them out to a movie or take them to dinner and they don’t have to worry about having enough money.”
By Paige Godden and Elizabeth Meyer