West Virginia Unions Pressure Manchin To Back Biden On Infrastructure Plan
If President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan is going to become a reality, it will very likely need the vote of every Democrat in the evenly divided Senate.
That simple fact puts a bright spotlight on West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat who represents a deep-red Republican state — a place that Donald Trump carried in the past two elections by some 40 percentage points.
Manchin's position means he will have a lot of say on whether the package includes everything the Biden administration wants, and on how to pay for it.
And soon after it was outlined, Manchin voiced some immediate concerns. He said raising the corporate tax rate from its current 21% up to 28% to help pay for the proposal was too much of an increase. He suggested a smaller hike, up to 25%.
Right away, it underscored how central Manchin would be to the plan's success.
And unions in West Virginia, which argue that the future of the state's economy depends on Biden's proposal, took Manchin's line as a cue to mobilize and to start educating their membership and the general public about what's at stake.
"It's really important to break down the aspects of the jobs plan state by state," said Mary Kay Henry, president of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union, who promised to put a special emphasis on Manchin's home state.
The SEIU represents thousands of health care workers who earn minimum wage in West Virginia — workers who are overwhelmingly female. A proposed $400 billion would be directed toward the home care industry under the Biden package. The SEIU estimates that would mean improved pay and benefits and an additional 6,000 jobs in West Virginia, a state with an aging population in need of such care.
Of those workers, Henry said, "We intend to make sure she is seen by Sen. Manchin," adding that the moderate Democrat must understand that home care deserves to be part of an infrastructure plan. "He needs to vote yes on both rebuilding roads and bridges in West Virginia, but also in investing in the home care workforce in his state."
The effort to win Manchin's support is now underway by the SEIU and its allies. One group, the Working Families Party, is running print and TV ads to pressure the senator. It's also hosting socially distanced, livestreamed outdoor concerts under the banner of Jammin' for Jobs. At one such event in the college town of Morgantown, bands played on the rooftop of a downtown building while spectators watched from the breezy top level of a parking garage just across the street.
Working Families organizer Ryan Frankenberry said you move Manchin by moving public opinion — "by creating awareness, by making it harder for him to say no. To create the expectation that he must and will say yes."
"You can catch more flies with honey than you can vinegar"
Vikki Tully is a native West Virginian. The 64-year-old Head Start teacher introduces herself by saying, "I was raised in a union home. I'm a coal miner's daughter." She is also an officer with SEIU Local 1199, which represents home care workers.
Lately she's been driving the winding highways and backroads through the Appalachian Mountains to meet with home care workers all over the state. She's there to let them know what they can do to make their voice heard and to ask them to sign personalized cards urging Manchin to support the infrastructure plan.
Tully also wants Manchin to remember that unions got voters to the polls in 2018 when he was last on the ballot. He narrowly won. "We stood up for him to get him where he's at; he needs to stand with us now," Tully said.
One thing stands out as you watch this union effort: Unlike so many political campaigns, it's all very polite.
Tully says that's a bit unusual for the SEIU, which is well-known for its "in your face" activism.
"But that's not what it's going to take right now," she said. "You can catch more flies with honey than you can vinegar. So we're trying to go that route now."
Then, after a pause, she added, "until it's needed to do it the other way."
In the downtown Charleston offices of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, President Joshua Sword says union officials have not ruled out doing big public events and rallies as a demonstration of support for the Biden infrastructure and jobs plan. Right now, however, they're working behind the scenes, taking advantage of their longstanding relationship with Manchin. They're talking, says Sword.
One reason for such an approach is that this is a state that Trump carried easily twice. Sword estimates that half of his union membership voted for Trump. Still, he says, they want the jobs that a big infrastructure plan would bring.
Ultimately, he says he thinks Manchin will be there in the end. "I don't think you have to push Sen. Joe Manchin on infrastructure," Sword said.
"This is his classic role"
This week, Manchin told reporters on a conference call that the infrastructure bill should focus on more traditional infrastructure — roads, bridges, rail, airports — and also bringing broadband internet to every corner of rural states like West Virginia.
That would appear to be bad news for those applauding the Biden administration's much broader definition, which includes home care, the promotion of electric vehicles and other measures. Manchin said some big items in the Biden plan — like home care — can be addressed in separate legislation. But that could make such programs more difficult to pass.
"Yep, we're definitely into a Joe Manchin moment." That's how West Virginia University political scientist John Kilwein describes it.
"This is his classic role," Kilwein continued, "how he envisions himself as the go-between the two parties and the kind of the common-sense guy from a rural state that can bring some down-home intelligence to the Capitol."
Hanging over the infrastructure debate are two recent moves by Manchin. He's now a co-sponsor of the pro-labor PRO Act — legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize. But he also, last month, rejected a labor-backed $15-an-hour minimum wage. That was a stinging defeat for many of those same union members pressing him now on infrastructure.
It all makes the effort to win support for Biden's plan a delicate dance for labor groups. Right now, the fight is over infrastructure, but with Manchin at center stage in a 50-50 Senate, it's a dance that's likely to continue on issue after issue, well beyond infrastructure.
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