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Biden scores major union backing as its leaders attack Trump

By Edward-Isaac Dovere, CNN

(CNN) — Joe Biden landed a major union endorsement Wednesday from North America’s Building Trades Unions, whose leaders say the president has his infrastructure bill largely to thank for it.

In making one of their earliest ever presidential endorsements, NABTU leaders are kickstarting an eight-figure organizing program to try to deliver their 250,000 members in the battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin for Biden.

The Teamsters, whose endorsement is being pursued by both Biden and Donald Trump, are members of NABTU but abstained from Tuesday’s board vote, according to people briefed on the proceedings. They will endorse after the Republican and Democratic conventions.

The backing from NABTU, which has 3 million members nationwide, is more enthusiastic than its 2020 backing of Biden. And it comes at a moment when a significant slice of union rank-and-file has split from traditionally Democratic-aligned union leadership in ways that are reverberating through elections. That’s raised questions about the political future of the next generation of union members.

It’s “almost like the perfect leader was sent at the perfect time for working people,” NABTU President Sean McGarvey told CNN about Biden in an interview announcing the endorsement.

Biden appeared at the union’s conference in Washington on Wednesday to officially get the nod – which union leaders also want to be seen as a stark rebuff of Trump, who eagerly solicited support from union members and leaders during his time in office, but, their leaders say, didn’t deliver. NABTU had called for Trump to resign after the January 6, 2021, insurrection.

During his remarks, Biden delivered some of his harshest and most personal critiques of his predecessor and political rival yet. He referenced Trump’s infamous remarks at a news conference almost four years ago, when he suggested that injecting disinfectants might be a way to help protect people against Covid-19.

“By the way, remember when he was trying to deal with Covid, he said just inject a little bleach in your veins?” Biden said. “He missed. It all went to his hair.”

In another remark, Biden asked the crowd of union workers to “think about the guys you grew up with who you’d like to get into a corner and just give them a straight left.”

“I’m not suggesting we hit the president,” Biden quickly added.

In praising Biden’s efforts for working people, McGarvey cited the investments and union protections built into the infrastructure act, the Covid-era American Rescue Plan, the CHIPs Act to increase technological production nationwide and the Inflation Reduction Act. He acknowledged that, for the moment, Biden’s support is stronger among his union’s leadership than it is among many of his members, whom he said were close to evenly split in 2020 between Biden and Trump, and generally remain so.

“They think now Joe Biden and Trump are running again, they think it’s just two politicians, ‘Same old, same old,’” McGarvey said. “Lo and behold, it’s not the same old, same old.”

The building trades union has a long history with Trump in the private sector, going back to working on projects together directly and even partially financing, through a union-owned financial services company, several of them in the 1980s and 1990s.

“He was one of the worst clients we ever had, because he rarely kept his word and it was a fight to get him to pay us back,” McGarvey said.

The financial relationship ended with the Trump tower in Chicago, for which the project manager search featured in the first season of “The Apprentice.”

The union was eager to support Trump’s promises of an infrastructure bill while he was in the White House, and McGarvey said he talked with Trump about getting support for multi-employer pension funds in the first Covid-19 relief bill in 2020.

“All your people are going to love me, right Sean?” McGarvey recalled Trump telling him by phone.

But none of that came to pass, which McGarvey said has made the contrast with Biden even clearer, along with the union jobs that have been created and the long-term worker protections and apprenticeship programs that have been written into law.

“Donald Trump talked about infrastructure once a week, once a month, once a year. He was committed to it, it was going to be easy for him,” Brent Booker, the president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said in a mocking tone.

Trump came into office promising a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which he repeatedly returned to over his years in office but never put forward an actual bill or plan.

McGarvey added that his conversations with Biden have had a different feeling than those with Trump: The president has twice grabbed him by the shoulders and made him promise to take the benefits of all the bills passed during his administration and make sure he is spreading training centers to both rural towns and inner cities.

Booker said that “it’s a persuasive argument” to those members who are not drawn to Trump for other reasons – whether because of his positions on immigration or his general promise to blow up the usual way the government does business.

“When they know what he’s done for them, everything points to moving the needle dramatically,” Booker said of Biden.

The outreach programs the union will now fund will hit hundreds of thousands of members and their families in the blue wall states that Biden flipped from Trump in 2020 and that will be crucial to 2024, connecting members through their local union halls, social circles and at home.

“When you have the time to explain where these opportunities come from, their eyes light up, they say, ‘I didn’t vote for him last time, but man, he’ll have my vote next time,’” McGarvey said. “I will assure you that we will do the work that’s necessary in the states that matter, with the capital investments and the feet on the ground to make sure that everybody who needs to know the story knows the story, to vote in their economic interests for the first time in a generation.”

As for Trump, union leaders hope the former president feels their brushback in particular, laughing off the potential of an angry response on Truth Social: “I really don’t give a f**k if he’s pissed,” McGarvey said.

A Trump spokesman didn’t respond when asked for comment about the endorsement and McGarvey’s comments about the former president.

In a statement about the endorsement, Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said Trump turned infrastructure “into a punchline,” but “Biden kept true to his word, and at every step of the way throughout his presidency, he’s fought like hell for union workers.”

Reached by text as he was flying to tout Biden’s record, campaign co-chair Mitch Landrieu, the administration’s former infrastructure coordinator, said the endorsement “has to do with the president honoring his commitment to rebuild the country in a way that produces good high paying union jobs and creating the strongest economy that we have seen as years,” adding, “If you want more of it, you stay the course and push ahead.”

Landrieu said that he was glad to see the infrastructure investments and others delivering politically: “A watched pot never boils,” he wrote. “Until it does.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referenced a Teamsters convention. There is not one scheduled.

CNN’s Michael Williams contributed to this report.

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