PITTSBURGH — You didn’t need to look hard to find the union label on the first event of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. The rally took place in a Teamsters Temple in this industrial town on Monday and the small hall was packed with representatives from a slew of labor groups. But one union stood out behind Biden, with dozens of their members surrounding the former vice president in their trademark black-and-gold shirts.
Biden’s big week began with an endorsement from the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). The group then played a prominent part in his kickoff speech. According to the union’s general president, Harold Schaitberger, IAFF plans to be a major — and impactful — element of Biden’s campaign.
“We are every place there’s a blinking light or a traffic light. We are in every congressional district. We’re in every state legislative district. We are in virtually every city, town and county,” Schaitberger said in an interview with Yahoo News ahead of Biden’s speech.
While Biden is currently leading among the 20 candidates in the party’s primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is trying to cut into the former vice president’s base of support.
On Monday, Sanders, the other leading Democratic candidate, appeared on CNN and was asked about the IAFF’s support for Biden. Sanders responded by drawing a contrast between their records, noting he opposed the Iraq War and a series of foreign trade agreements, including NAFTA, while Biden backed them.
Those issues are clear elements of a progressive critique of Biden. Many in the labor movement blame trade agreements for steep recent declines in manufacturing jobs.
But Schaitberger said he doesn’t want to see Sanders or another candidate from the Democratic Party’s more progressive wing.
“I’m very concerned about the Democratic Party moving further and further to the left. I’m concerned that it will go off … the left-hand cliff,” Schaitberger told Yahoo.
Schaitberger said he is more worried about “winning” than “high-minded aspirational ideals.” He echoed that argument in the Teamsters Temple when he helped introduce Biden, warning of nominating a candidate who is too far left.
The Democrats can’t afford to have a candidate with “honorable ideals, but little chance of winning,” Schaitberger said. “There’s no question that the candidate who can win … is Joe Biden.”
Schaitberger’s comment appears, so far, to be backed by numbers. On the morning after his rally, CNN released a poll showing Biden has widened his lead over the rest of the Democratic field since announcing his White House bid and is now a clear frontrunner.
When it comes to supporting Biden’s White House run, Schaitberger noted the IAFF’s membership, which includes firefighters and emergency medical care providers, is “held in really high regard” among the larger public. The union boasts about 280,000 members in the United States. While it’s far from the country’s largest labor group, it has been politically influential.
In 2004, the group was widely viewed as instrumental in helping John Kerry come from behind to secure the Democratic nomination.
“We were the force behind the campaign. We weren’t part of the force,” Schaitberger said of the union’s support for Kerry.
The firefighters union also has one of the most active political action committees in the country. Politico has described the union’s endorsement as “coveted” and said the sight of its black-and-gold shirts is an “iconic” part of campaign events. In the 2016 election, it backed away from a plan to endorse Hillary Clinton, in part out of loyalty to Biden. The group’s shaky support for her campaign was seen as a bellwether for the Democratic Party’s problems with white working class voters.
Still, even with this muscle, the union hasn’t always successfully played kingmaker. In 2008, the IAFF backed former Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., in the Iowa caucuses. However, he ended up with a distant seventh-place finish. More recently, the IAFF has focused on local races.
Schaitberger said his union has a “pretty sophisticated operation” that is “multifaceted in our ability to influence the political arena.” He noted the IAFF has its own broadcast studio to film commercials and a political training academy that has churned out over 1,000 graduates in the past 20 years who have been schooled in campaign techniques. He said the union focuses on having members communicate with each other, family members and neighbors to “magnify” their impact.
“There’s an old saying … we bring everything it takes to play the game. Money, marbles and chalk,” Schaitberger said, adding, “We bring manpower, we bring financial support, we will utilize every technique with our field operations that is permitted by the [Federal Election Commission] if it’s in direct coordination with the campaign.”
President Trump has certainly taken notice of the IAFF’s support for Biden. On Monday morning, shortly after the union announced its support for Biden, Trump fired off a series of tweets about the endorsement.
“The Dues Sucking firefighters leadership will always support Democrats, even though the membership wants me. Some things never change!” Trump wrote.
A spokesperson for Biden did not respond to a request for comment about the IAFF’s support for the campaign or Trump’s comments. However, Biden countered the president with a tweet of his own.
“I'm sick of this President badmouthing unions. Labor built the middle class in this country. Minimum wage, overtime pay, the 40-hour week: they exist for all of us because unions fought for those rights. We need a President who honors them and their work,” Biden wrote.
Trump has, in fact, had support among IAFF’s members. In an internal poll the union conducted after the 2016 election, 50 percent of the membership said they voted for Trump compared to 27 percent who backed Democrat Hillary Clinton. But Schaitberger said his union is firmly behind Biden. He cited Biden’s past support for death benefits, overtime and collective bargaining rights for firefighters as reasons for the union’s affinity for the ex-vice president.
“Joe Biden has been with us for 40 years, every step of the way,” said Schaitberger.
When Biden took the stage, he quickly focused on Schaitberger and the other union members in attendance. Biden called Schaitberger his “friend for a long, long time” before rattling off a list of seven other unions whose leaders were present at the event.
“By the way, I make no apologies, I am a union man,” Biden said.
This declaration prompted chants of “We want Joe!”
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