VP Harris continues Biden campaign focus on courting union voters in Philadelphia visit

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Vice President Kamala Harris addresses the SEIU convention in Philadelphia May 21, 2024 (screen capture from White House video)

PHILADELPHIA — Vice President Kamala Harris returned to Pennsylvania on Tuesday, continuing the Biden-Harris campaign’s focus on earning the support of labor unions. Harris delivered the keynote address to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) gathering at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

“Since your founding SEIU, you have been on the front lines of every major expansion of rights for the American people,” Harris said.

She spoke to the SEIU a day after the organization elected April Verrett its first Black woman president. “Talk about a phenomenal woman and a powerful fighter for justice and fairness,” Harris said of Verrett. “I know firsthand that April is a leader who is always guided by an uncompromising focus on worker empowerment and their rights.”

Harris reiterated the Biden administration’s defense of Affordable Care Act, which she said they want to strengthen. She blasted former President Donald Trump’s unsuccessful efforts to repeal and replace the healthcare law while he was in office. And she touched on other familiar campaign talking points: noting the Biden administration’s efforts to reduce prescription drug costs and to reduce student debt.

“We have already canceled nearly $160 billion in student loan debt for more than four and a half million Americans,” she said. And, she vowed support for a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Harris also called out the use of the phrase “unified reich” in a video Trump posted to social media and later deleted.

“This kind of rhetoric is unsurprising coming from the former president and it is appalling,” Harris said. “And we’ve got to tell him who we are. And once again it shows that our freedom and our very democracy are at stake.”

Steve Catanese, president of SEIU Local 668, told the Capital-Star that during the convention, attendees heard stories from members about ongoing efforts to form and join unions. He noted that the Biden administration had taken steps to reform the National Labor Relations Board. Harris reiterated the administration’s support for the Protecting the Right to Organize, (PRO) Act on Tuesday which would amend the National Labor Relations Act to make it easier for workers to organize, and stiffen penalties against employers who violate it.

“At least hearing it from the audience, I think the biggest cheer really came up when she talked about making it easier to form and join a union,” Catanese said after the vice president’s remarks.

Competing chants from the audience of “free Palestine” and “four more years” broke out numerous times during Harris’s 20-minute speech. 

“There were a lot of workers up there that were clearly excited for the Biden-Harris campaign and chanting favorably about Kamala Harris,” Catanese told the Capital-Star. “There were workers that walked in and had protests in the back and I think their protests came from a place of moral stance of what they think is right.”

The SEIU passed a resolution on Monday during the convention calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, Catanese added.

“Many of the workers felt very strongly about that and wanted to express that,” Catanese said. “They have the right to express those opinions and our goal is to make sure that they had the freedom to express that and that the other workers who wanted to express their appreciation for the administration could do that as well.”

He added that workers within the SEIU respect each other. “We live in a robust democracy and their voice should be respected.”

After departing the convention center, Harris made an unannounced stop at Jim’s West for a cheesesteak. She tried to order two cheesesteaks with provolone, according to pool reports, but was persuaded to try one with Whiz. She was joined at Jim’s by state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) and U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-2nd District).

As she waited for her order, Harris was asked if enough aid was getting into Gaza. “The President and I have been very clear that more aid needs to get into Gaza and that we have concerns,” she replied. “We have been obviously doing work to make sure that we can increase the opportunity and possibility of aid getting in, such as the construction of that dock.

Harris was asked about the protests during her speech; she said that protesting was “part of the tradition” of this country.

Trudeau: Canada ‘number one export partner’ for Pennsylvania

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the convention a few hours after Harris, promoting his administration’s record on working families and emphasizing the importance of the United States-Canada connection.

“SEIU members in Canada and the U.S. work together to make our communities stronger on both sides of the border,” Trudeau said to applause. “The relationship we share in this room is just like the relationship we share between our two countries.”

Unlike Harris’s speech, there were no protests during Trudeau’s address.

Trudeau spoke with reporters following his 20-plus minute remarks, addressing the importance of trade between the two countries, specifically citing Pennsylvania, and how Canada could be affected by a second Trump term.

“Here in Pennsylvania, Canada is the number one export partner for the state, greater than the next four foreign destinations combined,” Trudeau said. “The links between the Canadian and American economy are so deep and indeed getting deeper over the past year. Our trade numbers reached higher levels than any time before.”

“It is to the benefit of Americans and Canadians to continue to work well together regardless of who’s in the White House,” he said.

Harris met with Trudeau to discuss U.S.-Canada “cooperation on a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues,” according to the vice president’s office.

Trudeau was scheduled to meet with Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro on Tuesday evening in Philadelphia.

Union workers key to Biden campaign

Courting union voters has been a constant for President Joe Biden during his career in elected office. Biden has made an annual Labor Day visit to Pennsylvania in recent years, speaking in the City of Brotherly Love last year on the holiday, touting his administration’s commitment to union jobs. During his first 2024 stop in Pittsburgh last month, Biden thanked US Steelworkers for their support, calling himself a “union guy from belt buckle to shoe sole.”

Tuesday was Harris’s second visit to Pennsylvania this month, following an appearance in Montgomery County where she joined actress Sheryl Lee Ralph for a discussion on reproductive rights. Three of Harris’ four visits to Pennsylvania this year have been in the southeast, a densely populated region where Democrats rely on racking up big numbers to carry the state’s 19 electoral votes. 

Biden has made seven appearances in Pennsylvania so far this year, including a weeklong visit to three cities the week before the state’s primary election. Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, has visited Pennsylvania three times in 2024, speaking to gun rights supporters in Harrisburg and at a rally in the Lehigh Valley. His only visit to Philadelphia was in February, where he unveiled a new line of Trump-branded shoes at Sneaker Con

Trump also held a rally in Wildwood, New Jersey earlier this month, an event with plenty of Pennsyvlanians in attendance.

Polling from AARP Pennsylvania and Muhlenberg College released earlier this month showed Trump with a narrow lead over Biden, although U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) has a slight advantage over Republican challenger David McCormick.

The Cook Political Report, a national ratings outlet, rates the presidential race as a toss-up in Pennsylvania, the state with the most electoral votes on the line with that distinction. 

Update: This story was updated at 3:20 p.m. May 21, 2024 with details and reaction from Harris’s speech, and again at 6 p.m. with additional details.

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