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Teamsters president keeps Democrats, GOP on their toes

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President Biden and former President Trump are gunning for an endorsement from the Teamsters union, but the labor organization is keeping the presumptive nominees on their toes. 

The Teamsters president has asked to speak to both parties at their national conventions, a spokesperson confirmed to The Hill — a rare move as suspense builds over to whom the influential group will throw its support. 

The pro-labor community is confused by the Teamsters’ request. Many see Biden and Democrats as the natural choice, noting the president’s record in the White House. Fears that leaders may back Trump have also grown as polling shows a consistently close race less than five months until Election Day.

“It’s going back to a time when the Teamsters endorsed Nixon,” said one labor movement leader in a swing state. 

President Sean O’Brien’s request to appear at the marquee events for both Democrats and Republicans — a development that was first reported on by The New York Times — has challenged conventional wisdom that the major unions would ultimately back Biden.

“I don’t think he likes Trump,” said the union organizer about O’Brien. “It’s more we all see the competition model as vital to getting the Democrats to do the right thing.”

“And if the Republicans want to help, we are welcoming it and building bridges,” the source added.

A spokesperson for the Teamsters said they typically wait until after the conventions to make a formal endorsement.

Still, O’Brien’s desire to address opposing crowds is notable.

“It’s not that often that a union president asks to speak at both conventions,” said Bob Bussel, director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. 

Teamsters officials have expressed interest in playing ball with many types of candidates this cycle. Officials met with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West last year as third-party contenders. They also met with Trump back in January. The union’s political action group donated $45,000 to the Republican National Committee shortly after, FEC filings show, though the group contributes substantially to Democrats as well.

Trump has been trying to cut into Biden’s hard-earned support from organized labor since 2020, when both contenders competed for the workers’ vote. 

Biden, meanwhile, sat down with leadership and Teamsters members in March, but it’s not clear if he got out of it what he wanted. O’Brien came out of that meeting noncommittal about who his union would back, knowing he had some time to make a final call. The Teamsters have long been in Democrats’ column and backed Biden against Trump last cycle.

Other unions have already promised their support to Biden, including the prominent United Steelworkers and North America’s Building Trades Unions and many in the community feel optimistic about his prospects.

Labor activists and organizers don’t necessarily anticipate a stamp of approval for Trump, but the waiting game has created some uncertainty. 

Polls in battlegrounds like Michigan and Pennsylvania show margin-of-error differences between the two candidates. Any major movements that impact working constituencies could cause more fluctuation.

“I would be surprised if there was a Trump endorsement, but it’s not to say that it’s not beyond the realm of possibility,” Bussel said. If that happened, it would be “a stub of the toe” for Biden as he works to compensate for ongoing deficiencies with other voting blocs.

National union leaders say they have taken steps to inform their members about the progress Biden has made in office, including banning noncompete agreements, improving overtime protections and rallying behind picketing autoworkers. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law was also considered a major boon to organized labor.

“Our union’s perspective is Joe Biden has been the most pro-union president in generations if not ever and our union is fully behind his reelection,” said Sal Rosselli, president emeritus of the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

“All the unions here that we’re involved with are fully behind Biden and don’t see the need for a ‘both sides’ approach,’” Rosselli said when asked about O’Brien’s request to hear from the two presidential contenders. 

“About 24 percent of our membership is Republican, for example, but we have no member desire, no communications to me or from our members that we should consider supporting Donald Trump,” he said. “The opposite is true.”

Some say O’Brien could be responding to a demand from his membership — a vast 1.3 million workers — to engage with both sides of the aisle. Unions don’t typically have a say over who employers or other members hire and may have an ideologically diverse rank and file. He could also be simply stress-testing both parties’ agendas. 

Bussel suggested O’Brien is doing due diligence by attempting to reach across party lines, but he added that the Teamsters leader is also likely “trying to play this for maximum leverage.” 

“It’s almost like being a non-aligned country during the Cold War,” Bussel said. “You really try to get the maximum benefit out of your strategic position.”

Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist with longstanding ties to the AFL-CIO, argued many underestimate the number of Republicans who are union members. 

Vale said the leader’s attempt at bipartisanship comes off as “an interesting gambit to try to see if the Republicans are serious about reaching out to union members.”

Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, didn’t comment on whether the Democrats plan to consider a speaking slot for O’Brien. But the campaign is working to win over the union by highlighting Biden’s biggest accomplishments. 

“There’s only one candidate in this race fighting for American workers and creating good-paying union jobs here at home, and that’s President Biden,” Munoz told The Hill. 

“Donald Trump has spent his entire life fighting against workers’ rights, and now Trump is proudly running to ship union jobs abroad — just like he did in his first term. Joe Biden fights every single day for unions and workers across the country, and will continue to work to earn the Teamsters’ support.” 

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

Polling shows interest among both Democratic and Republican voters for the union vote. NBC News polling from February indicated that Biden is still outperforming Trump among union households, but by a closer margin than 2020. 

“Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania will probably decide the election,” said Steve Rosenthal, a Democratic strategist and the head of a consulting firm that works with labor unions.

“All three are states with a huge union history and a huge base,” he added. 

The competition is fiercer than in the past, Rosenthal suggested, with both candidates needing to do more to capture support than what they’re offering at this point in the race. As a result, the big-ticket endorsements are more coveted. 

“The union household vote right now is not where it needs to be in order to win these states,” he said. “The union endorsements are really, really valuable right now.”

Waiting until after Republicans’ July convention in Milwaukee and Democrats’ August convention in Chicago to offer an endorsement means less time to capitalize on that name-brand approval. That timeline is not great from the candidate’s perspective, but would still leave time, strategists said, for Teamsters to pull out all the stops for its candidate between Labor Day and Election Day. 

“Biden’s record on union issues has been beyond anything that anybody imagined,” Rosenthal said. “It’s hard for me to imagine a union not endorsing him.”

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