Pennsylvania Energy-Sector Unions Are Souring on Joe Biden

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden reacts as he speaks at a "Build Back Better" Clean Energy event on July 14, 2020 at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden has long characterized himself as a union man during his decades in public office, but as the 2020 Democrat presidential candidate veers far left, some energy-sector unions in Pennsylvania are worried about his anti-fossil fuel stance.

The Washington Examiner interviewed union members about their support, or lack thereof, for Biden:

In a series of conversations with the Washington Examiner over recent weeks, the union officials, all registered Democrats, expressed alarm at Biden’s shift to the left on energy policy while giving him some benefit of the doubt that they would not grant to more liberal candidates such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, who pledged to ban fracking during the campaign.

Biden has promised to end new fracking leases on federal lands, where only 13% of natural gas was produced in 2017. But he has struggled to overcome a gaffe during a pointed exchange with Sanders in a March debate, in which Biden declared “no new fracking.”

“Joe Biden is really one of us. I always loved the man,” said Jim Cassidy, business manager of the Insulators Local No. 2 union just outside Pittsburgh. “He scares me now. Is he embracing the new Green Deal or whatever they are calling it? He needs to get some stuff straight.”

Cassidy, however, said he will vote for Biden.

“I am completely shocked and stunned about the language coming from Joe Biden, allegedly a union guy,” said Jim Snell, business agent for Steamfitters Local 420 in southeastern Pennsylvania, whose 4,600 members install piping systems in oil refineries, natural gas plants, and infrastructure projects.

“The Democratic Party has kicked the building trades to the curb, and they are all in with the environment groups,” Snell said.

“With Biden, there is some level of thought that he is saying certain things because it’s a line you need to walk at this point to get elected,” said Jeff Nobers, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania, representing 60,000 workers and contractors in construction trades.

“There are folks giving him that leeway,” Nobers said.

Shawn Steffe, business agent for Boilermakers Local 154 in Pittsburgh, does not buy the Democrats’ promise to help workers in high-paying fossil fuel jobs transition to new ones in clean energy. 

He also doesn’t like Biden cozying up to, and getting policy advice from, leftists such as self-described Democratic socialists Sen Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

“Biden needs to steer his car out of the far-left ditch back to the middle if he wants us to support him,” Steffe said. “It’s not happening. I don’t see my members voting for someone who will take away their jobs and pensions over something that has a lot of half-truths to it.”

Steffe voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to vote for him again in November.

“Trump has not delivered on campaign promises to revive the coal industry, union leaders acknowledge, unable to stop an economic-driven shift to cheaper and cleaner natural gas and renewables,” the Examiner reported. “But he has never stopped speaking to fossil fuel workers, promoting oil and gas as part of an “energy dominance agenda” enabled by easing of permitting rules.”

“Within this region, the perception is Donald Trump is a supporter of this industry and Joe Biden is not,” said Jim Kunz, business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers in Local 66, covering Pittsburgh and representing nearly 8,000 workers operating cranes, backhoes, and bulldozers building pipelines and power plants.

Kunz, a “lifelong Democrat” voted for Trump in 2016, but will not vote for him this election cycle.

But Kunz isn’t voting for Biden either, arguing he is “going down the same road” as Clinton, who vowed to put coal plants out of business.

“Biden, seeking to energize young and liberal voters, is doubling down on an agenda to build a clean energy economy of the future that transitions away from fossil fuels, viewing the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to respond to climate change,” the Examiner reported. “Biden is betting he can peel off some white residents in blue-collar union counties around Pittsburgh who once voted Democratic but defected to Trump over Hillary Clinton, delivering the state to Trump by less than 1 percentage point in 2016.”

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