Union members attended the Worker’s Presidential Summit at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia

What will you do to protect trade unions? What does the South Philly refinery situation represent? What will you do to close the staggering wage gap in the U.S.?

Philly union workers listened to six Democratic 2020 candidates offer answers to these questions and more in Center City at a presidential summit organized by the local AFL-CIO.

Pat Eiding, the president of the AFL-CIO Philadelphia Council, emphasized the role of Pennsylvania in the upcoming 2020 election.

“Make no mistake, the path to the presidency runs through our state,” Eiding said, in what has become a rallying cry for local political organizers in the battleground commonwealth.

The federation’s first-ever Workers’ Presidential Summit drew hundreds of workers to Convention Center on Tuesday afternoon. The itinerary included two top-polling candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. They were joined by four other candidates polling at 3% or less in various polls: entrepreneur Andrew Yang, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, billionaire Tom Steyer and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

The candidates got hit with questions ranging from addressing the wealth gap to their response to the South Philly refinery. The presidential hopefuls also ruminated on automation, corporate greed, anti-union efforts and, of course, President Donald Trump.

Here are the highlights.

Biden touts cred amid flared tensions with Philly labor

Biden hasn’t exactly been on good terms with Philly building trades and labor leaders in the last few months. In a interview this August, Eiding spoke publicly about his disappointment that Biden delayed his acceptance of his invitation to the summit.

“He always calls himself a Pennsylvanian at heart,” Eiding told NPR. “His headquarters are here in Philadelphia. But his folks haven’t found the importance of coming together and talking to our workers. And so that’s very disappointing,”

He added: “There’s got to be some respect for the working people, if they want their vote.”

According to the Inquirer, Biden’s campaign waited until a day before the summit to confirm his appearance.

On stage, he was well-received by the crowd of laborers, including members of IBEW Local 98, Laborer’s District Council, and other politically powerful locals. Biden touted his upbringing in Scranton, Pa., and later Claymont, De.

“All my career I’ve been called Middle Class Joe, and down in Washington that’s not a compliment,” Biden said, a disputed claim that appears regularly in his speeches.

He credited his political ascension to the U.S. Senate to support from Delaware’s labor unions. He promised he would choose labor interests of Wall Street interests, if elected.

“Without a strong union movement, this country will atrophy,” Biden concluded.

Members of the Roofers Local 130 Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Philly labor unions are pissed about the 1%

Retired Channel 6 news anchor Vernon Odom hit every candidate with a question about what they would do to close the wealth gap in the country. The top earners in the country have seen their fortunes grow exponentially in the last decade, while most Americans have still not recovered from the Great Recession, according to federal data.

Biden pledged to end Trump’s tax cut for the 1%. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio railed hard against NAFTA and the wage gap. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang floated his proposal of a universal basic income as $1,000 a month.

Hedge fund manager and environmental activist Tom Steyer, who is a billionaire, also attacked the need to push back against right-to-work states like Pennsylvania. Klobuchar criticized Trump for making “fake promises” to union members by promising top-dollar infrastructural projects.

Not surprising with this audience, most of the Democrats won applause by pitching organized labor as the only antidote to corporate greed.

During Sanders speech, Odom asked the senator, a prominent critic of the corporate structure, if he can name one “good corporation.”

“I’m sure they’re there, I just can’t think of them right now,” Sanders said, to laughter.

Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Every candidate questioned on the South Philly refinery

Odom also asked every candidate their view on the closure of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions’ refinery in South Philly. After declaring bankrupcy this summer, the company laid off 1,000 employees without severance pay — even as PES executive paid themselves millions in fire-sale bonuses.

Many of the Democratic hopefuls said union workers needed to be part of the transition to renewable energy forms.

“American workers did not create the problem. They were just trying to feed their families,” said De Blasio. “We need to make sure they are guaranteed the jobs in the renewable energy field…millions of jobs.”

Bernie was a huge hit

Sanders, who spoke fourth, received without a doubt the warmest reception out of the group.

On stage, the senator immediately trumpeted his “100% voting record with the AFL-CIO” and later called himself as “perhaps the most pro-worker member of the Congress.”

He hit his usual talking points on his presidential trail — raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, voting against the Iraq War, and a litany of others — and then moved on to his outlooks to labor workers.

Despite a few hecklers in the room — one yelled “you’re an asshole” and “go back to Venezuela” — Sanders received steady applause, particularly when he proposed his plans to grow union membership nationwide.

“The trade union movement today is the last line of resistance against the corporate agenda,” Sanders said. “If we’re going to grow the middle class in this country, it is absolutely imperative that we grow the trade union movement.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...