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Biden meets with the Teamsters today. But don't expect an endorsement any time soon

President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally March 9 at Pullman Yards in Atlanta.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
/
AP
President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally March 9 at Pullman Yards in Atlanta.

Updated March 12, 2024 at 11:44 AM ET

President Biden's travels today take him right up Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Teamsters President Sean O'Brien and other top executives of the 1.3 million member union are expected to welcome the president. Biden will also participate in what's described as a roundtable discussion with rank-and-file Teamsters including, as a union statement put it, "UPS drivers, American Red Cross technicians, film and television workers, freight operators, law enforcement, and public employees."

The Teamsters are one of the largest labor unions in the country, with members not only in a diverse collection of industries and workplaces, but also spread across the country including in important political battleground states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin and others.

Biden — who often refers to himself as "the most pro-labor President in U.S. history" — already has won important 2024 endorsements from the AFL-CIO and the United Auto Workers union. Additionally, more than two dozen other national unions have also endorsed him, including the National Education Association, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Laborers International Union.

The Teamsters may indeed join that list, but it could be a while before they do so. The organization points out that in 2020, its endorsement didn't come until mid-August, just 10 weeks before election day.

The Teamsters do offer a potentially very important base of support for any candidate. They backed Biden over Trump four years ago, as did a long list of other unions.

The Biden campaign issued a statement about the president's relationship with the Teamsters saying, "The president is proud to have strengthened union protections and created millions of union jobs, and he appreciates the opportunity to discuss his historic record with the Teamsters and earn their support."

Labor expert Harley Shaiken at the University of California, Berkeley says that even though Teamsters have a history of endorsing both Democrats and Republicans over the years, by all outward appearances it appears that the union sees President Biden as both a friend and ally.

Shaiken notes that Teamsters President O'Brien has been, "speaking very positively about President Biden." But, Shaiken adds that O'Brien is also aware that a sizable minority of his membership likes Trump, so he's "careful to ensure that all Teamsters know he's made a fair decision and spoken with everyone."

Prior to Biden's visit today, Trump held a similar session at Teamsters headquarters in Washington in January. It was, by all accounts, a congenial meeting. Other candidates who have visited this election cycle include Robert Kennedy, Jr., former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., author Marianne Williamson, Cornel West and Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn. Most of those candidates have since dropped out.

A union endorsement does not automatically deliver votes to the chosen candidate. Democrats do have an edge with such voters according to exit polling, which traditionally shows the party winning somewhere between 55-60% of the vote from union households in presidential contests. That means the GOP candidates goal is to cut into that margin.

Cutting into that margin is something Trump was able to do against Hillary Clinton in 2016, but not against Joe Biden in 2020. Biden maintained the traditional Democratic strength with the labor vote.

And while winning a union endorsement is no guarantee of votes from union members, it does send an official signal to the membership which candidate their leadership feels best addresses the issues important to them.

A statement by the Teamsters says its discussions with Biden will include, "things like wages and wealth inequality; corporate bankruptcy reform; antitrust enforcement in the warehouse and package delivery industries; and the freedom to form and join a union more quickly and safely."

Teamsters President O'Brien says these roundtable meetings with candidates are designed to send an important message, "that all our members' voices are heard and our elected officials do not take for granted the power of the Teamsters vote."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.