MakingHistory.0622 The Electrical Worker Online
The Electrical Worker online
June/July 2022

'You Literally Built This Country'
Biden Lauds the IBEW, Touts Infrastructure Jobs in Historic Convention Speech
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In an electrifying midweek address to the 40th International Convention, President Joe Biden drew thunderous cheers for greenlighting infrastructure projects that will employ IBEW members far into the future, championing unions like none of his predecessors, fighting to cut taxes for working families and other historic progress and plans for a better, more just America.

"The only reason I'm standing here now as president of the United States is because the IBEW came on with me early," Biden said after walking on stage to a raucous standing ovation.

"I've never forgotten not only what you've done for me, but what you've done for America. I've said this before, I'll repeat it again: You literally built this country," he said.

"If every investment banker in America would go on strike, not a whole hell of a lot would happen. But guess what? If you all went on strike nationwide, the country would shut down — shut down."

Biden, who arrived to Chicago's McCormick Place convention center in his iconic green and white Marine One helicopter, is the only sitting president to speak at an IBEW convention.

His May 11 appearance builds on an already impressive record of visits to IBEW union halls and workplaces and shout outs to the union and its members everywhere from road speeches to the State of the Union.

Introducing him, International President Lonnie R. Stephenson detailed the IBEW's exhaustive efforts to put Biden in the White House — and why.

"Joe Biden always makes sure that the IBEW's agenda is his agenda," Stephenson said. "He has our back, and we have his."

Biden harkened back to a campaign promise that his audience knew by heart. "I said early on that I was going to be the most pro-labor union president we've ever had, for a simple reason: you allow workers to maintain their dignity, you allow them to hold their heads up high."

He repeated his mantra that without unions, there would be no American middle class, and that labor is the key to rebuilding it.

"With your help we're seeing the strongest job creation in modern times," Biden said. "Look at the economy today: 8.3 million jobs my first 15 months in office, a record. The unemployment rate now stands at 3.6 percent.

"Jobs and companies are coming home again. We're making 'Buy American' a reality, not just a slogan."

He touted the success of the bipartisan American Rescue Plan that jumpstarted the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting money in the pockets of desperate families and revitalizing hard-hit cities and states.

"And now, not only has infrastructure week finally arrived after four years of the other guy, we can look forward to an infrastructure decade," he said, bringing his audience to its feet. "I know you're all over the country. The projects are coming to you."

The crowd cheered as he listed some of the American Jobs Act investments, starting with $5 billion "so the IBEW can get to work building a national network of 500,000 [electric vehicle] charging stations all across America."

Another $20 billion, Biden said, "so IBEW workers can modernize our electric grid, building larger and more resilient transmission lines that can withstand storms and get new and clean energy to our homes."

"Think about it, folks," he said. "Who the hell but you crazy guys climb up poles in the middle of a storm to try to replace a transformer? We have to let people know more of what you actually do."

Next was $65 billion "so that highly skilled and certified IBEW members can deliver affordable high-speed internet everywhere — rural, urban, suburban."

Two days earlier, the White House announced that 48 million low-income families — representing nearly 40% of U.S. households — will get high-speed Internet installed in their homes for free.

"We worked it out with the internet companies," Biden said. "We can't be a country where a mother has to drive up to a McDonald's parking lot in the evening with her child just so he can get on the internet to do his homework.

"And what this means to all of you is good-paying union jobs. Jobs you can raise a family on. Jobs that can't be outsourced."

Delegates applauded Biden for workers' rights language in the new law, including prevailing wages on the projects it funds, and for throwing his weight behind the Protecting the Right to Organizing Act that is pending in Congress.

"Look, when Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, it didn't just say that we should 'allow' unions," he said. "Everybody forgot this for a long time. What it said is: We, the federal government, should 'encourage' unions and collective bargaining.

"You all know why this matters. Union members get higher wages, better benefits and health insurance, paid leave; protections against discrimination and harassment; and safer and healthier workplaces."

He outlined his administration's agenda to help all working families by reducing the costs of health care, prescription drugs, and childcare, along with specific savings that involve work for IBEW members.

"Folks, there's no reason why we shouldn't get a tax credit for weatherizing your homes. My plan does that," he said, referring to a meeting with nearly a dozen CEOs from the nation's largest utility companies.

"They confirmed that if we pass the investments allowing families to weatherize their homes [and] write it off as a tax credit, it will immediately lower the bills of these families an average of $500 a year."

That and other relief for working and low-income families — including the long-term health of Social Security and Medicare — is possible, he said, if the richest Americans and corporations start paying a fairer share of the nation's taxes.

"No one making under $400,000 a year, I promise you, will pay an additional penny in federal taxes," Biden said.

"Meanwhile, right now, the average billionaire — there's about 790 of them or so in America — you know what their average tax rate is? Eight percent. E‑I‑G‑H‑T. Eight percent in federal taxes," he said. "Most of you are likely paying two to three times that much."

He lamented that his lockstep opponents on Capitol Hill have made bipartisanship all but impossible, a value hard-wired in him from a half-century of service as a senator and vice president.

But he warned that their animus goes far beyond obstruction, angrily calling out a scheme to shift even more of the tax burden onto middle-class and lower-income Americans.

He told delegates they'd "think I'm making it up" and that he wouldn't believe it himself if he hadn't seen the document with his own eyes.

"Republicans in Congress have proposed a plan that will make working families and American families poorer," he said. "Here's what it does. It raises taxes on 75 million American families, over 95% of whom earn less than $100,000 a year in combined income. It would raise taxes by nearly $1,500 per family.

"I've proposed a minimum tax for billionaires," he said. "Congressional Republicans have proposed a minimum tax for teachers, firefighters and electricians."

He stressed that it will take strong unions to balance the political and economic scales. "The only way to match power is with power," he said. "Unions provide, in one word, democracy."

Wrapping up his 40-minute speech, he told a story about meeting an IBEW apprentice on a trip to the Pacific Northwest.

"Last month, I visited the main airport in Portland, Ore., which is undergoing major renovations being funded by the bipartisan infrastructure law," he said. "I met a woman named Lauren [Heitzman] of IBEW Local 48.

"She came up to me. She shared what the job meant to her, how she grew up poor and was raised by a single mom, how she bounced around in different careers until she became an apprentice with the IBEW," he said. "She's putting in her years and the thousands of hours that she needs to put in to become a journeyman electrician.

"Lauren told me that the airport will symbolize the crown jewel of the Pacific Northwest, but it will also symbolize something else: a better life — a better life for an IBEW member.

"And it'll be a symbol for a better America, because the IBEW is just getting started."



President Joe Biden greets International President Lonnie R. Stephenson before addressing delegates and guests to the 40th International Convention.


Biden's 40-minute speech felt at times like a friendly chat as he roamed the stage and talked about the importance of government and labor working together to achieve great things.