DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – More than a dozen Democratic presidential candidates made their pitch to union members at the Iowa AFL-CIO convention Wednesday, and the organization’s leader set the stage by saying, “The path to the nomination and to the White House runs through the labor movement.”
But just being a Democrat is not a qualifier for a union endorsement, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told union members in a live video address, and being a Republican is not a disqualifier.
“If you support us, we will support you. If you want our support and our vote,” candidates need to be “unambiguously pro-worker and pro-union,” he said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden said that he would not have won his first election to the U.S. Senate without union support.
“Ya’ll brung me to the dance, and that’s no joke,” he said.
“There’s been a war on the house of labor for years, for two decades,” Biden said, adding that Republican governors and legislators “gutted labor protections, not just in Iowa but all across the country.”
Employers often require new hires to sign an agreement that they will not discuss their paycheck with their co-workers. Forty percent of workers must sign non-compete agreements that prevent them from going to work down the street for higher pay.
Biden said 4 million people have been misclassified as management, which cost those workers $1.2 billion last year.
“What’s that about?” Biden asked. “It’s all about greed, and pushing down wages.”
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren made her union support clear: She said she has spoken at 126 town halls in 26 states and Puerto Rico, “and every single time, I have uttered this line: Unions built America’s middle class, and unions will rebuild America’s middle class.”
That’s not a line she saved just for the Iowa union convention, she said.
“If you’re looking for a partner in the White House, someone you can count on, that’s who I will be,” and “unions will have a seat at the table,” Warren said.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders tied his speech to the Iowa union group with his new pro-union plan announced earlier Wednesday.
“I just introduced the strongest pro-union platform in the history of American politics,” Sanders told the gathering.
Sanders said as president, his goal would be to rebuild the trade union movement in the U.S. with the goal of doubling the number of union members in his first four years of office.
He gave AFL-CIO convention delegates some highlights of his pro-union platform Wednesday. Among them: making it easier for workers to form unions by simply signing cards; enforcing penalties for employers that unfairly oppose union organizing; ending right-to-work laws in states like Iowa; and guaranteeing collective-bargaining rights, including the right to strike, for government employees.
Former Maryland Congressman John Delaney introduced himself as the son of a union electrician, and as the first member of his family to attend college with the help of a union scholarship.
Growing up in New Jersey, Delaney recalled his father’s simple political philosophy: “If you care about workers, you vote for Democrats,” because the core message of the Democrat Party is putting the worker first, whatever the issue.
A common theme of the candidates’ pitches to Iowa union members Wednesday was that workers built America, and unions helped workers win a living wage, decent health insurance and retirement in dignity.
Delaney said workers fought hard to win health care benefits and those should not be taken away, if universal health care proposals from some Democratic candidates limit private health care options.
Biden made a similar point.
“You negotiated really hard for your benefits with your employer,” he said. “Under my plan, you get to keep it.”
The former vice president also said he would expand the Affordable Care Act to make it better.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker actually has Iowa roots: His grandmother was born and raised in Des Moines – his family came to the “American utopia” in Buxton, Iowa, to work in coal mines – and his grandfather was a United Auto Workers member working on the assembly lines.
Booker noted that polls show Democratic voters want anyone who can beat President Donald Trump.
“Can’t we have bigger aspirations that that?” he asked. “We win how we have won by our ideals, worker rights, civil rights, women’s rights.”
“Get folks to stand up for our values,” Booker added.
He said winning means standing up for the ideals that won rights for American workers, using the example of the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911, when women factory workers, trapped on upper floors, were forced to jump out of windows.
In the face of that tragedy, Booker said, “Americans stood up and said, ‘This is unacceptable.’”
And, “This is a moment just like that.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who spoke to the convention from New York via live video, said he would create a “21st century Bill of Rights for workers” that would, among other things, protect the right of unions to organize workers, ban right-to-work laws at the state level through federal law, protect workers from being fired without just cause and due process, and protect workers in the gig economy.