Labor's 2024 Political Dilemma

Biden’s support for the genocide is indefensible, but we still need him to win.

Rand Wilson and Peter Olney

President Joe Biden at a United Auto Workers (UAW) picket line with UAW President Shawn Fain in September during the union's Stand-Up Strike against the Big Three automakers. Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP

As the Israeli assault on Gaza continues moving into ever-more harrowing phases of death and displacement, progressive organizing around the 2024 election and domestic criticism of President Joe Biden’s handling of the crisis is deepening. Critical swing states like Michigan — where a well-organized campaign for voters to write in Uncommitted” in their late February primary netted an unexpectedly high 100,000 votes — seem all but lost for the Democrats come November.

However, despite the success of the Uncommitted” campaign, and after other efforts to see if the Democrats might be able to change course and find a more suitable candidate for the Left to rally around (and barring what would be a surprising move by Biden to step back from the 2024 nomination), it seems clear we’ll have a replay of 2020: Biden vs. Trump.

While in some ways it may seem to be contradictory, we believe that the more labor raises the drumbeat for a cease-fire in Gaza, the better off we will be in November. 

The politics of this moment demand that we both fight like hell for an end to the Israeli assault on Gaza and that we push to save Biden from his neo-imperial instincts and an electoral catastrophe. In order to defeat the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), to defend The Squad, and to withstand the onslaught of the MAGA movement, we need to do something many of us fundamentally — and for good reason — don’t want to do: double down both on trying to move Biden on Gaza, as well as trying to secure his re-election.

It’s time for a serious reckoning — and for working people across the country and the labor movement, there is much at stake. In about seven months, the presidential election and votes in key house and senate districts will determine much of the political landscape for labor over at least the next four years. Some members of the very pro-labor Squad are facing primary challenges, bankrolled by AIPAC because of The Squad’s moral clarity and defense of Palestine. AIPAC is not to be underestimated; in 2022 it succeeded in helping take down Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) who was a staunch supporter of labor. 

So our first task this election season is to defend elected progressives in the primaries. It is their voices (and votes) who have been the loudest in the political arena in pushing Biden on many domestic and foreign policy fronts — including both labor and Gaza. 

Despite all Biden’s failings — and to be sure, his role in the genocide of Palestinians is unconscionable and indefensible — if Trump and his fascist legions recapture power, it will be a very real danger to our racial, gender, climate and economic justice movements, including the labor movement. Our democracy is far from the one we need — and deserve — but under Trump it will be further dismantled and most of the significant gains achieved through the Biden National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would be wiped out. 

So our first task this election season is to defend elected progressives in the primaries. It is their voices (and votes) who have been the loudest in the political arena in pushing Biden on many domestic and foreign policy fronts—including both labor and Gaza.

The labor movement, for example, has long advocated for card check” or majority sign-up recognition in organizing campaigns. Such a process would mean workers could gain their collective bargaining rights without having to go through the treacherous minefield of an NLRB election. For generations, anti-union employers have exploited the NLRB election process to dissuade workers from voting to unionize. A recent Biden NLRB ruling in the CEMEX decision provides workers a pathway to directly petition their employer for recognition and penalties if employers commit unfair labor practices. 

The CEMEX decision is just one example of Biden’s plusses” on jobs and workers’ rights. Uppermost for us is his NLRB appointments, especially General Counsel Jennifer A. Abruzzo, and repeated use of the presidential bully pulpit in support of workers. Beyond that, as Bloomberg’s Joshua Green pointed out:

Biden has broken dramatically with the laissez-faire approach to trade and industrial policy taken by the last two Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Instead, he’s embraced the populist ideals advocated by Democrats to his left, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, by having the federal government take a direct role in shaping the economy.

The impact of this posture from Biden should not be dismissed. The massive funding for the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the American Rescue Plan Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act are pumping billions of dollars into the domestic economy while prioritizing the creation of manufacturing jobs. 

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The United Auto Workers (UAW) pursued a successful strike against the Big Three automakers last fall: Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler). UAW President Shawn Fain wore a T-shirt emblazoned with Eat the Rich” and in keeping with his attire, castigated the billionaire owners of the auto companies. He also denounced Donald Trump, who attempted to upstage the union by holding a pathetic rally on the premises of a non-union parts supplier. The nation watched Biden become the first President to walk a strike line. By publicly denouncing the greedy automakers and walking the picket line, Biden sent a powerful message to working Americans: I support the class struggle!” How wonderful to hear the top corporate executives whine for the labor strife to be over.

Meanwhile, the genocidal military bombardment and invasion of Gaza is largely armed and bankrolled by the United States. The U.S. is probably the only world power that could force a lasting cease-fire. Yet Biden has refused and instead has funneled weapons and money to the Israelis. Biden’s position is in defiance of U.S. public opinion showing that around two-thirds of voters support calling for a permanent cease-fire and a de-escalation of violence in Gaza.

To put it mildly — his support for the genocide is both allowing the killing to continue and seriously risking his reelection.

So how can we bring out voters to defeat Trump when Biden persists in supporting a criminal foreign policy mission? Yet by rejecting Biden, won't we allow a fascist revanchist like Trump to retake the White House? With Trump, we surely get much worse authoritarianism, the same or worse pro-Israel policy, further attacks on reproductive justice and gender justice, even more wild immigration measures than the ones Biden is proposing (even though he has adopted a reprehensible right-wing strategy on immigration) and a clamping down on our surging labor movement, among so many other things

So how can we bring out voters to defeat Trump when Biden persists in supporting a criminal foreign policy mission? Yet by rejecting Biden, won’t we allow a fascist revanchist like Trump to retake the White House? With Trump, we surely get much worse authoritarianism, the same or worse pro-Israel policy, further attacks on reproductive justice and gender justice, even more wild immigration measures than the ones Biden is proposing (even though he has adopted a reprehensible right-wing strategy on immigration) and a clamping down on our surging labor movement, among so many other things.

But fortunately, the same UAW that inspired the labor movement in October 2023 helped lead the way for larger unions to call for a cease-fire.

One of the most poignant moments in the resistance to U.S. funding of the Gaza genocide was a press conference held outside of The White House in December 2023. It was there that Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) introduced Fain and said: I’m a proud daughter of a UAW worker, and I know my Yaba (father), if he was here, he would be so proud.”

The UAW taught him he deserved human dignity, even though he only had a fourth-grade education, even though he was Palestinian, even though he was Muslim,” Tlaib said. On that assembly line, he was equal to every single human being on that line. Who did that for him? The United Auto Workers did that for him.” 

Fain’s union had already taken an official stand in favor of a cease-fire — and even went further with a pledge to explore divestment. 

The UAW’s call for a cease-fire was transformational in the labor world and the list of major labor organizations supporting a cease-fire has grown significantly since then, with more than 200 unions and labor bodies now on board, including the National Education Association, the American Postal Workers Union and the Service Employees International Union.

Perhaps the most stunning announcement and a true bellwether of the shifting terrain in U.S. labor officialdom regarding Israel was the tweet in early January by Randi Weingarten, the President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT):

Yes, it is well past time for a cease-fire agreement. An end to the war. The hostages must be released. Robust humanitarian aid must get to the people of Gaza. Netanyahu has to go (along with Ben Gvir, Smotrich and others.) Only embracing a future with both peoples secure and free will bring peace.

Given that Weingarten is well known for her Zionism and opposition to the movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), and the AFT’s historic support of Israel, her comments reflect the shifting sentiments among union members, particularly younger teachers. Before the national AFT moved on Gaza, many local unions who called for a cease-fire, including the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, likely pushed Weingarten and the AFT to do the same. And then on February 8, the AFL-CIO, which represents more than 12 million workers, finally weighed in with a cease-fire statement, albeit a mild one: 

The AFL-CIO condemns the attacks by Hamas on October 7th and calls for a negotiated cease-fire in Gaza — including the immediate release of all hostages and provision of desperately needed shelter, food, medicine and other humanitarian assistance to Gazans — and reaffirms our support of a two-state solution for long-term peace and security. 

In light of organized labor’s historic pandering to U.S. imperial foreign policy, here was yet another positive development that could pressure the administration away from its embrace of Israel’s genocide.

Much of labor’s initial opposition to the assault on Gaza was organized by a loose network of labor activists, many of whom had previously opposed the war in Iraq. With initial support from seven national unions and more than 200 locals, they formed the National Labor Network for Ceasefire to end the death and devastation.” Now the network aims to further expand labor’s unprecedented support for a cease-fire.

As the pressure from labor on Biden continues to grow, many unions — like the UAW, AFT, CWA, NEA and AFL-CIO that have all formally endorsed Biden for re-election in 2024 — opposed to the genocide are walking on two tracks: Pressuring Biden for a cease-fire while maintaining that his re-election is necessary to block Trump from taking dictatorial control in January 2025. There is some disagreement about this strategy, but our hope is that labor’s efforts on Gaza can convince Biden to change his present course from what appears to potentially be electoral self-destruction.

So can Biden win? Yes, but only if we organize and hustle.

Now that it appears we’re in store for the Biden vs. Trump rematch, and if we agree that the stakes for Democracy and future progress on our issues is extremely high; then winning the 2024 election is imperative. Yet some are already saying defeat is inevitable” and why bother to try.

UAW President Shawn Fain during President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on March 07, 2024. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

However, Biden’s victory in 2024 is, in fact, entirely possible, even with the serious issues around his popularity. As the former AFL-CIO political director and strategist Michael Podhorzer has pointed out, Biden’s victory is within the margin of effort, not error.

As always, remember that the outcome in those states will depend not on the margin of error in polls, but on the margin of effort by campaigns, activists, media, and concerned citizens to mobilize America’s anti-MAGA majority,” he wrote.

Podhorzer’s analysis debunks much of the current polling data to argue that if we show up and vote — and if we help turn out voters — we win. Trump can still command his solid 35% nationwide and, of course, even bigger margins in red states and some battleground states. Yet, elections in 2018, 2020 and 2022 demonstrated that turnout is key. In fact, if more people had not been swayed by doom and gloom predictions for 2022, and had done the work to hold House seats in blue states like New York and California, we would not see the disaster going on now in the MAGA-controlled House of Representatives. It’s time for union members to get on the playing field by both pushing to end the genocide and win the 2024 election.

The 2024 election cycle promises to be the most expensive campaign in history. And unions will be counted on to spend record amounts on the overall campaign, especially in swing states.

The question is will they be willing to go to their members, especially members who are more conservative, to make a persuasive case for Biden?

With our most conservative members, labor’s best campaign strategy may be to concentrate on Biden’s support for strikes, organizing, the achievements of the NLRB and the massive job-creating investments in infrastructure.

Union leaders and the thousands of members who volunteer to campaign must also speak clearly to members about the importance of reelecting Biden, holding the Senate and retaking the House in 2024. If labor’s voters turn out in key battleground states — where as in 2020 the election will be decided on very thin margins (including PA, AZ, NV, GA, MI, NC and WI) — we will win. 

Now is the time to start preparing members and leaders to go knock doors for Biden in those key states, and to focus on defending The Squad and other key races in Congress. We must implore citizens, as author Rebecca Solnit famously popularized years ago, that Voting is not a valentine. It’s a chess move.”

Disclosure: As a 501©3 nonprofit, In These Times does not support or oppose any candidate for public office.

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Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer for more than 40 years. An activist in Somerville, Massachusetts, he helps convene a community-labor coalition, Somerville Stands Together and is also a board member for the Job Creation and Retention Trust.

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union. He has been a labor organizer for 50 years working for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. 

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