Scranton Joe? Biden gets heat for inaugural celebration with union-busting law firm

Former Vice President and 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks in Pittsburgh on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020 at a drive-in rally at Heinz Field. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Joe Biden’s presidential run began in a Pittsburgh union hall. He’ll ring in the start of his presidency with a virtual event hosted by a law firm that was hired to bust a union drive in Pittsburgh. 

Ballard Spahr, a firm that advertises “union avoidance training and counseling” on its website, is hosting “Biden’s Home States” virtual inaugural event Wednesday, with both the Pennsylvania and Delaware Democratic parties.

The sponsorship by Ballard Spahr, a national law firm whose employees have donated $2.3 million to Democrats since 2016, seems to run counter to the bold pro-organized labor words Biden often uttered on the campaign trail.

Scranton-born, and Wilmington-raised, Biden ran and beat outgoing President Donald Trump in part on his image as a blue-collar man who fights for working people.

Biden used that message throughout the campaign, including a promise to “be the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen” on the eve of Election Day — a statement also uttered in western Pennsylvania.

But some progressives saw the contradiction in Biden’s opening day shindig, and promptly called it out. 

“How can we say we are the party of everyday working Pennsylvanians when we are partnering with a law firm that is so strongly opposed to organized labor?” Rep. Jessica Benham, D-Allegheny, told the Capital-Star. “It is unconscionable to me.”

Benham, who was first elected in November, as well as Democratic Allegheny County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam, first noted their displeasure with Ballard Spahr on Twitter.

The firm, based in Philadelphia, has employed both U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, and former Gov. Ed Rendell.

Rendell, who famously challenged Philadelphia’s public sector unions as mayor, worked at the firm from 2000 until he was sworn in as governor in 2003. He returned to its employ after leaving office in 2011.

The firm’s work on labor law is advertised in detail on its website.

“Because we have represented management in hundreds of union-organizing attempts, we know how to help clients maintain a union-free environment,” says Ballard Spahr’s website.

In recent years, the firm also was hired by two state-related universities — Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh — to push back against union campaigns by graduate assistants.

Benham, who graduated from Pitt in 2019 with a degree in bioethics, was part of that campaign.

In response to the push, the University of Pittsburgh hired Ballard Spahr to block the effort. The firm was paid $1 million as of January 2020 for its work, according to The Pitt News, the university’s student newspaper.

An initial election in spring 2019 was against the union, but they appealed to the state labor board. On review, the board ordered a new election, but the redo still hasn’t been scheduled.

“It looks really bad for the Pennsylvania Democrats to be associated with a union busting law firm,” Benham added.

It isn’t just elected officials taking notice. Kevin Reuning, an associate professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio, was part of Penn State’s graduate union push in 2017 and 2018.

He recalled working against Penn State and Ballard Spahr during that drive, and still bristled at their tactics.

For example, he pointed to Penn State spreading uncertainty about international student’s visas if they voted to unionize.

“They were willing to bend the truth as far as possible,” Reuning told the Capital-Star. “That is probably being too nice.”

Fundraisers

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party declined to comment, and Ballard Spahr did not reply to a request for comment.

But campaign finance data shows that the firm has a strong financial connection to Biden and some Democratic politicians.

Individual attorneys at Ballard Spahr have been politically active for at least the last three decades, according to data from Open Secrets. And their giving has skewed to Democrats.

But the firm’s political largesse nearly quadrupled in the Trump era.The previous high was $272,000 in 2008. In 2016, the firm’s attorneys gave $846,000. By 2020, political giving increased to more than $955,000, including $148,450 from a newly active political action committee.

Biden himself was the biggest beneficiary of firm employees’ dollars, receiving almost $209,000. Firm employees also donated to many of the Democrats’ top U.S. Senate candidates, such Georgia’s Rapheal Warnock, Arizona’s Mark Kelly, and Iowa’s Sidney Greenfield. 

The firm’s PAC also donated to some  Pennsylvania officials, such as U.S. Reps. Brenden Boyle and Chrissy Houlahan — as well as former employee Scanlon.

Going PRO

On his campaign website, Biden said that “there’s a war on organizing, collective bargaining, unions, and workers,” led by Trump and Republicans. He even noted how common it is for companies to hire anti-union consultants — such as Ballard Spahr.

In response, he promised to check corporate power and encourage unionization. Chief among the promises is his support for the PRO Act, a bill to effectively give existing labor law teeth.

While workers have a right to organize, the penalties for bad faith bargaining, misclassifying workers, and retaliating against workers who try to form a union are minimal. 

So, the PRO Act would increase the consequences for companies that break labor laws, and allow more workers, including gig employees, to form unions.

How Ballard Spahr’s anti-union work would change if such a law passed is unclear. But business groups have vehemently opposed the law — which passed the House last year under Trump.

Regardless of Ballard Spahr’s role and stance, Benham said, it is now Democrats “responsibility to hold the President-elect accountable to the promises he made” to working people.

Reuning agreed with Benham. While Ballard Spahr’s sponsorship was frustrating, he also wasn’t surprised by it.

In the end, Reuning said, if Biden and the Democratic Congress did manage to pass the PRO Act and other similar wins for labor, he wouldn’t care about the virtual event after all.

“This is an important thing but not the most important thing,” Reuning said.