Biden: Unions are ‘the only ones keeping those barbarians at the gate’

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VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN praised unions and blasted efforts to impose right-to-work laws at the 2014 UAW National Community Action Program Conference in Washington Feb. 5.  – AP/Cliff Owen photo
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN praised unions and blasted efforts to impose right-to-work laws at the 2014 UAW National Community Action Program Conference in Washington Feb. 5.
– AP/Cliff Owen photo

By Mark Gruenberg

PAI Staff Writer

Washington (PAI) – Business and Right Wing backers of so-called right-to-work laws really want “the right for them to eliminate your right to have a say in your work,” Vice President Joseph Biden says.  And unions are “the only ones keeping those barbarians at the gate,” he adds of the Right and its business backers.

“We have to organize to fight back against these unrelenting efforts to diminish collective bargaining,” Biden declared.  “We have to adapt, but the moment workers lose the ability to be represented” by unions “that’s the moment we all lose out.”

Biden’s forceful comments on Feb. 5 against one of the Right’s key causes brought an ovation from the 1,500 delegates to the Auto Workers’ legislative conference in D.C.

A parade of Democrats spoke during the 4-day confab: House Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), top Democrat on the GOP-run House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) and Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio).

‘HARD TO IMAGINE’

Delegates applauded Biden’s blast at the Right Wing and his declaration that if the government and the Auto Workers had not stepped in to restructure GM and Chrysler, the Detroit 3 car companies and their suppliers would have folded, the nation would have lost at least 1 million jobs and the U.S. would still be in a depression.

“It would have been hard to imagine how the country could recover if we lost those 1 million jobs,” Biden said, adding the GOP Bush administration gave that figure.

Biden saluted autoworkers’ sacrifices to keep the car companies going, including cuts in wages and retiree health care. 

The UAW, he said, cooperated with management on that goal, because unionists realize their economic health depends on their firms’ economic health.  Other industry should follow that model, he said.

Left unsaid: Republicans, led by southern senators, wanted to let the Detroit car companies – and the UAW in the process – die, in favor of foreign “transplants.”

MIDDLE CLASS SHRINKING

Delegates also welcomed Biden’s prediction the U.S. economy is recovering from the Great Recession and would again lead the world, thanks to worker productivity, more technically oriented education and, by 2032, energy independence.

Nevertheless, “the middle class is shrinking,” Biden warned during his wide-ranging, sometimes-folksy speech.  At one point, he held up a chart showing the simultaneous declines since 1968 in union density and share of income to the middle class.  Unions are trying to rebuild it, he added, but corporations and their political allies don’t care.

“These corporate types talk about rights of business,” Biden exclaimed.

“In 1972,” when Biden was elected to the Senate, “the wage disparity between a CEO and his lowest person on his payroll was 22.2-1.  Now it’s 273-1.  We’re breaking a basic bargain, and we’re stronger when we grow from the middle out,” he added.

Corporate refusal to compensate workers wasn’t always the case, Biden noted.

He cited Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford, who raised workers’ wages to $5 a day in 1917, before the UAW was born.  That benefited both workers and the economy, he said.  Similar raises, including raising the minimum wage, would help both, he declared.

“Why did he do that?  He understood economics.  Turnover declined sharply, his profits rose from $30 million to $160 million in two years, and it put money into people’s pockets and they bought his vehicles,” Biden said of Ford.

A minimum wage hike and restoring federal benefits for the long-term jobless, as labor and the Obama administration push, would accomplish that same goal of aiding workers and families, he said.

ECONOMIC RECOVERY

Biden also touted what he called a gathering economic recovery, built on high and increased productivity by workers, growing U.S. energy independence, new hires in U.S. factories – including 380,000 more auto workers industry-wide since 2008 – and what he predicted would be a surge of “insourcing,” returning exported jobs to the U.S.

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