By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA —The fight for working-class voters came to Philadelphia on Tuesday night, as several Democratic presidential hopefuls spoke to area union members at the Philadelphia AFL-CIO Conference.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., along with entrepreneur Andrew Yang, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer all promised to strip power from Wall Street and give more to workers.
Philadelphia AFL-CIO President Pat Eiding said the path to the presidency runs through Pennsylvania and union members must cast their ballot for a candidate who supports workers rights, access to healthcare and fair wages.
“We need a president who will put the needs of working families in our communities first,” said Eiding, whose organization is made up of more than 100 unions and 200,000 members.
Vernon Odom, a former broadcaster on ABC6, served as the moderator who pitched candidates questions.
Each candidate attempted to prove their union chops, detailing their advocacy for increasing union jobs and eliminating impediments for organized labor, such as so-called “right to work” laws. They also outlined their plans for the environment and healthcare.
Political swipes at Republican President Donald Trump, including calls for his impeachment, garnered applause from the hundreds in attendance.
Multiple candidates slammed corporate greed, which they said was fueling an inequitable American economy, depressing wages and hurting union labor. Some called for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour.
Biden, who has been leading the field in national polls, decried the business culture that focuses on corporate earnings and personal wealth, which he said was making America less competitive globally.
The former two-term Veep said he would increase the capital gains tax rate, which allows high-earners to pay a lower tax rate than middle class workers; end Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, which benefited top earners most; and provide an $8,000 tax credit for childcare.
“Folks, we can do without without Wall Street,” Biden said. “Wall Street didn’t build America. … Ordinary, middle-class Americans built America.”
Sanders, who received the loudest applause from the union crowd, lampooned America’s economic system where gains were flowing to the richest 1% while wealth for the bottom 50 percent of earners has declined over the decades.
The Vermont senator called for making public colleges and trade schools tuition free, canceling student loan debt and taxing Wall Street.
“This country and the Congress, against my vote, voted to bail out the crooks on Wall Street,” Sanders said, referring to the billions of dollars in federal money that was dumped into the financial markets after the 2008 economic collapse.
“Now it is their time to help the working class of this country.”
Yang advocated for his flagship proposal for a universal basic income, providing $1,000 a month to every American 18 years and older.
A tax on technology companies, which have benefited from sweetheart tax policies that allow them to avoid paying taxes, would fund his proposal, Yang said. The income boost would be a boon for union members, he added, providing them with a financial safety net if they go on strike.
“We have to go where the money is and the money is in the hands of these trillion-dollar tech companies that are just sucking value out of our communities,” Yang said. “My goal is to take that value and return it to us.”
De Blasio called for repealing Trump’s 2017 tax cuts and implementing his 21st Century Workers Bill of Rights that would provide paid time off, increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and add protections from unfair terminations, among other things.
“When you put money back in the hands of working people, guess what? They spend it … and they create more jobs and opportunity for others,” de Blasio said.
The candidates agreed America should transition from its dependence on fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, like wind and solar energy, and retrain workers to participate in those jobs.
However, they differed on how to implement their plans.
Biden called for using all energy sources with the goal of transitioning to zero-emissions. While he would eliminate subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, he would invest in carbon-capturing technologies, high-speed railroads, and other job-creating efforts.
“We can do a lot of things in the meantime to create really good jobs immediately without throwing everyone out of work automatically,” Biden said.
Both Klobuchar and Yang called for subsidies for the renewable energy industry and new technologies, while ensuring blue collar workers in the fossil fuel and manufacturing industries were retrained as market forces eliminate their jobs.
“We’re going to have to do this in a big way in these areas that are going to be seeing change,” Klobuchar said.
Sanders said his $16 trillion plan would transform the nation’s energy system to eliminate all use of fossil fuels by 2050 and create 20 million jobs.
“Coal miners, oil rig workers are not my enemy,” Sanders said. “Climate change is my enemy.”
Biden did not give much detail about his healthcare plan, but said people would be allowed to keep their health insurance.
“If you’ve broken your neck to get it, if you’ve given up wages to get it, you should be entitled to keep [your health insurance] and no plan should take it away from you, if that’s what you decide,” Biden said.
Biden’s health insurance plan would create a public health option and build on the Affordable Care Act passed while he was vice president under President Barack Obama, according to his campaign website.
Sanders’ plan would provide universal healthcare through a Medicare-for-all single-payer plan.
“We’re going to have a healthcare system that guarantees healthcare for all, not one in which last year, the healthcare industry made $100 billion in profit,” he said.
Steyer and Klobuchar also endorsed establishing a public option to compete with the private healthcare industry.
“I want the government to use its clout in a public option to beat down prices,” Steyer said.
Among the hundreds attending the event was Javon Jones, a third-year apprentice in the Roofers Union Local 30.
Jones, 33, of Galloway, N.J., said he was concerned about maintaining liveable wages and efforts nationally to reduce union membership.
Although he came with an open mind to hear all the candidates, Jones brought a healthy dose of skepticism.
“It’s kind of early to take one person’s side because, let’s be honest, they’re politicians,” he said. “They can tell you anything they want to tell you while they’re here, but have a different agenda once they get you in their pockets.”
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.