UAW Local 167

Vice President Biden tells delegates that without unions, the middle class evaporates

Vice President Joe Biden speaks as UAW President Bob King looks on.
Vice President Joe Biden tells delegates that far-right extremists are out to eliminate collective bargaining as UAW President Bob King looks on. Photos by Jenny Sarabia.

By Vince Piscopo, Joan Silvi and Chris Skelly

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Joe Biden defines the middle class differently than an economist might. For him, middle class is a value, not a number. It means being able to afford a home instead of renting. It means having safe parks for children to play in, a chance to send your child to college and the ability to take care of elderly parents.

“Where I come from, that’s middle class,” he told the 1,500 delegates on the final day of the 2014 UAW National Community Action Program (CAP) Conference. “That’s not asking a helluva lot.”

But what’s happening in America is fewer and fewer people are in the middle class, chiefly because of the well-coordinated attacks on collective bargaining by right-wing extremists such as the Koch Brothers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“They know without you there, they call every shot,” Biden said, explaining that the recent right-to-work agenda pushed by right-wing business groups is more about their rights than those of workers.

“Is it right for them to eliminate your right to have a say in your work?” Biden said.

The vice resident, whom UAW President Bob King called one of the “strongest advocates, allies and friends the UAW has ever had,” has a long history with our union. The UAW was one of his earliest supporters when he was first elected to the Senate from Delaware in 1972.

“You were the ones who took a bet on me and you never left me and I never left you,” he said.

President King said Biden was a major reason why the auto rescue succeeded. President Obama essentially bet his presidency on the government, UAW workers and the auto companies’ ability to come together and work through the crisis. A Bush administration official in 2008 predicted 1.1 million jobs would be lost without an auto rescue. Instead, 380,000 jobs were added with the prospect of more to come. All three domestic automakers are producing exceptional vehicles.

Biden said his father, who ran two auto dealerships in Delaware, once told him that all the automakers needed to do was send him excellent product and he could do the rest.

“Guess what? You are sending product,” he said, adding that the direct worker input into quality and other manufacturing issues that the UAW negotiated into its contracts has borne fruit.

“Guess what? They figured out you know a whole helluva lot,” Biden said.

The vice president said many politicians and elected officials have a problem pronouncing a simple, one-syllable word: union. If more learned how to pronounce it, he said, we could grow the middle class. He held up a graph that showed as the number of union members declined since 1968, the share of income going to the middle class has also declined.

“We know collective bargaining is the bedrock of our economy. It’s not just about you,” he told delegates. “It’s about economic growth.”

The vice president also credited our union with not simply being content to advocate for our members, but for a just society. It was a theme expressed earlier in the day in a stirring speech by UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams, who referenced our support for the struggle for civil rights led by Walter Reuther in the 1960s and the struggle against apartheid led by President Owen Bieber in the 1980s.

“Can you imagine (Bieber) explaining that to our members and why that was important to them?” he asked delegates.

Williams said we must communicate more with our members so they connect why a just minimum wage, global solidarity and other issues are critical to their own economic security.

Both Vice President Joe Biden and UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams recalled our union's legacy of standing up for others outside our union. 

But most of all, the secretary-treasurer said, we have to be ready to fight. He called out hypocrites in Washington who attack Social Security while at the same time work to eliminate defined-benefit pension plans, vote to cut food stamps for the poor, and won't extend unemployment insurance when there are far more job applicants than open jobs.

“Who are these people?” he said, adding that he always asks Republicans if they are ashamed by their representatives in Washington.

“It’s time to call them out,” he said to an enthusiastic response. “I recommend we quit going to see our friends and we start going to see our enemies.”

He also called for our union to bridge the wage gap between workers. While our union cannot allow the companies where we represent workers to become uncompetitive, those companies must understand that our members have unmet needs and must share in the prosperity.

“We will understand the companies’ problems but, dammit, they better start understanding ours,” Williams said.

Earlier in the day, President King presented Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., with the UAW Social Justice Award. Miller, one of the strongest supporters organized labor has ever had in Congress, is retiring after 40 years of supporting working people. Miller told delegates that the middle class has got to understand that there’s a war that’s been declared on organized labor.

“Understand – they are coming for your lunch,” he said, adding that union wages strengthen middle-class wages.

Other events on the final day of the conference included an inspiring address at the UAW Women’s Breakfast by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, the V-CAP and GimmeFIVE awards, addresses by Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Mass., and anti-School of the Americas activist Fr. Roy Bourgeois, plus a panel discussion on the impact of social media.

Vice President Cindy Estrada
Vice President Cindy Estrada
said women and children
feel the brunt of cuts to
government assistance for the hungry and unemployed.

At the Women’s Breakfast, Vice President Cindy Estrada brought delegates to their feet several times when she spoke of the need for income equality and why policymakers and activists need to shift their vision from one of division and hatred toward compassion and helping those who need it, particularly women and children who bear a disproportionate brunt of cuts to government assistance for the hungry and underemployed.

“The multi-billion dollar cut to food stamps will affect 850,000 people. There is a never a reason to compromise when it comes to giving kids food. Forty-seven million Americans are hungry. That’s why income inequality is our issue this year. Eighty-five people own 46 percent of the global wealth and they want $8 billion in food stamp cuts for hungry children? That’s not right!” she said.

Estrada also pointed out the income gap between men and women, as well, with women still making 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. That hits especially hard for minimum wage workers, two thirds of whom are women. “We need to challenge ourselves in how we grow our souls,” Estrada said. “We need to push back against hatred of the poor and their children.”

Nancy Pelosi
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi calls not extending unemployment benefits 'immoral.' 

Nancy Pelosi recounted the endless battles she continues to fight against Republicans who not only block job creation legislation that would help the poor, especially women, but don’t make helping the unemployed a priority.

“The GOP says if we give the unemployed a check they won’t look for a job. Who do they know in that situation? Who do they talk to? The GOP says unemployment isn’t a priority for us. Well, it’s a priority for the American people. It’s immoral that we would not extend unemployment benefits, that we would do that in this country!” Pelosi said to an ovation packed meeting room. “We don’t begrudge wealth, but none of that is possible without the workers who made that success possible.”

UAW CAP delegate Tawanna Tucker said Pelosi’s remarks about income equality hit home with her. The Local 3000 member is an inspector at the Ford plant in Flat Rock, Mich. 

Tawanna Tucker
Local 3000's Tawanna Tucker: An improvement in the minimum wage will improve the economy.
Local 7's Tawanna Tucker
Local 7's Deneen Brewer: Minimum wage workers not making enough to survive.

“Unemployment affects all of us because minimum wage isn’t enough to live on. If minimum wage workers were paid more, the economy would be boosted for all of us. Those workers would spend more and strengthen the U.S. economy,” said Tucker.

Local 7 delegate Deneen Brewer couldn’t agree more. The repair technician at Chrysler’s Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit says income inequality is indeed the issue of today. “It’s very important that we communicate how important it is that minimum wage workers are working hard but they simply aren’t making enough to survive. They are working low-wage jobs but don’t make enough to feed their families. Raising the minimum wage is a start to correcting that,” said Brewer.

Rep. Kennedy told delegates he has deep respect for the bond between labor, the UAW and his family and the tradition of the UAW working hand-in-hand with the Kennedy family during elections helping to make their victories possible. He said it’s because their agendas are the same: equality and fairness and American workers who are the bedrock of the U.S. economy.

That’s why, he said, income inequality that exists today is unacceptable. “Income inequality is a growing problem,” said Kennedy. “If the federal minimum wage kept up with inflation it would be $11 an hour. Instead it’s stuck at just over $7.”

Kennedy said its labor and workers who have made the American economy the international powerhouse it became in the 20th century, a time when the country’s wealthy paid their fair share which resulted in unprecedented infrastructure and public service that meant the average American could live a decent, middle-class lifestyle.

Today’s political division in Washington and the dismissal of community values have strained cooperation, he said. But the battle isn’t lost and needs to continue on behalf of, and by, working Americans. “It’s time your government fights for an economic system that makes sure no full-time worker has to live in poverty,” he said.

“In this country, opportunity is not defined by what you have been given but what you have to give,” he said.

Also on Wednesday, the UAW honored the most politically active in the UAW with V-CAP awards.  Region 5 raised the most V-CAP dollars totaling more than $1 million to support pro-worker candidates. Regions 1D and 9A won awards for more than doubling V-CAP contributions.

Region 2B won the award for best overall member participation in GimmeFive program. Region 1A won the award for best overall improvement.


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