President Joe Biden electrified the convention floor Wednesday afternoon, drawing thunderous cheers for infrastructure projects that will employ IBEW members far into the future, championing unions like none of his predecessors, fighting to cut taxes for working families and make billionaires pay their fair share, among other historic progress and plans for a better, more just America.
"The only reason I’m standing here now as president of the United States is because the IBEW came on with me early,” Biden said as he arrived on stage at the 40th International Convention to a raucous standing ovation — somehow possible even with every other hand appearing to hold a camera phone in the air.
Biden is the only sitting president to address an IBEW convention, building on an already significant record of visits to IBEW halls and workplaces and shout outs to the union and its members everywhere from road speeches to the State of the Union.
Introducing him, International President Lonnie R. Stephenson detailed the IBEW’s exhaustive efforts to put Biden in the White House — and why.
“Joe Biden always makes sure that the IBEW’s agenda is his agenda,” he said. “He has our back, and we have his.”
Biden harkened back to a campaign promise that his audience knew by heart. “I said early on that I was going to be the most pro-labor union president we’ve ever had, for a simple reason: you allow workers to maintain their dignity, you allow them to hold their heads up high.”
Repeating his mantra that unions built America’s middle class, he said they’re doing it again.
“With your help we're seeing the strongest job creation in modern times,” Biden said. “Look at the economy today: 8.3 million jobs my first 15 months in office, a record. The unemployment rate now stands at 3.6 percent.
“Jobs and companies are coming home again. We’re making ‘Buy American’ a reality, not just a slogan.”
He touted the success of the bipartisan American Rescue Plan that jumpstarted the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting money in the pockets of desperate families and revitalizing hard-hit cities and states.
“And now, not only has Infrastructure Week finally arrived after four years of the other guy, we can look forward to an infrastructure decade,” he said, bringing his rapt audience to its feet.
“I know you’re all over the country,” he said to continued cheers. “The projects are coming to you.”
Revving up the crowd even more, he cited a $5 billion investment “so the IBEW can get to work building a national network of 500,000 [electric vehicle] charging stations all across America” and “more than $20 billion so IBEW workers can modernize our electric grid, building larger and more resilient transmission lines that can withstand storms and get new and clean energy to our homes.”
He also won applause for language in the law, the American Jobs Act, that requires prevailing wages and secures other worker rights, and for throwing his weight behind the Protecting the Right to Organizing Act that is pending in Congress.
“Look, when Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, it didn’t just say that we should ‘allow’ unions,” Biden said. “Everybody forgot this for a long time. What it said is: We, the federal government, should ‘encourage’ unions and collective bargaining.
“You all know why this matters. Union members get higher wages, better benefits and health insurance, paid leave; protections against discrimination and harassment; and safer and healthier workplaces,” he said.
He lamented that his anti-worker, anti-union opponents on Capitol Hill don’t share those values, and have made bipartisanship — something he strongly believes in — all but impossible.
He said while his administration fights to lower taxes for workers and ensure the longevity of such vital programs as Social Security and Medicare, Republicans are threatening the social safety net and plotting to increase taxes on low-income and middle-class Americans.
“They have proposed a plan that will make working families and American families poorer — it’s in writing,” he said. “And here’s what it does: It raises taxes on 75 million American families, over 95% of whom earn less than $100,000 a year in combined income. It would raise taxes by nearly $1,500 per family.”
Biden said it will take strong unions to balance the political and economic scales.
“The only way to match power is with power,” he said. “Unions provide, in one word, democracy.”