Vice President Joe Biden points as he speaks at the 2014 UAW National Community Action Program Conference in Washington on Wednesday. (Cliff Owen / Associated Press)
Washington — Vice President Joe Biden defended the role of organized labor, saying opponents are mounting a long-term war to attack unions.
“These guys on the right — they know without you there — they call every shot,” Biden told more than 1,000 UAW members and retirees on the final day on its four-day annual political conference here. “You guys are the only guys keeping the barbarians at the gate.”
He criticized right-to-work laws approved in Michigan and Indiana. “Did you ever think you would see a day when right to work would pass in Michigan?” Biden said. “It’s not a right to work.”
He held up a chart that said the fall in unionization had been a factor in the decline in wages.
“You built the middle class. Labor built the middle class,” Biden said. “You never leave anybody behind — even when it costs you politically and when it doesn’t benefit you directly.”
The vice president said widening disparity between the wealthy and those who earn less was hurting the country. “We are stronger when we grow from the middle out,” Biden said. If Americans “don’t believe it’s going to be OK, then we have a problem,” he said.
Biden said if people can't join a union, people won't get fair wages.
"That's the moment when it's over," Biden said. "we have to be vigilant and unrelenting in our fight to protect and expand collective bargaining."
But the Obama administration failed early in its term to win a new law backed by unions to make it easier for workers to join unions. With Republicans in charge of the House, it has made no effort to win approval in recent years.
Biden suggested that President Barack Obama had bet his presidency and the economy in 2009 on the $85 billion auto bailout to “save an iconic industry.”
Biden visited the North American International Auto Show and D.C. auto show in recent weeks — and now is talking to autoworkers. He is mulling a run for president in 2016 — and his courting of autoworkers could be a key factor.
Biden credits the UAW’s endorsement as a key factor in his upset victory for the U.S. Senate in 1972 in Delaware. The UAW “took a bet on me,” Biden said.
UAW President Bob King noted Biden was a strong advocate of the auto bailout in 2009. He is one of “strongest advocates, allies and friends the UAW has ever had... who stood up for us in every single fight we’ve been in.”
Biden said in the 1970s, states were ending right-to-work policies — which he said were really a right “to pay lower wages.”
“They waged a war on war on labor’s house. This is a concerted, full-throated, well-organized, well-financed, well-thought-out effort waging war on labor’s house,” Biden said.
Biden said he wouldn’t weigh in on the upcoming vote of Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., on whether to form a German-style works council and be represented by the UAW.
Biden joked the “one overwhelming reason” not to run for president in 2016 is so he can buy a Z06 and drive it after leaving office. He ticked off the high performance standards of the new Corvette including the speedy 0-60 acceleration time. “Not that I like speed,” he said.
Biden said he chatted with GM CEO Mary Barra at the North American International Auto Show about driving the new Corvette. He said the drive could happen at a Secret Service facility. “I may ask,” he said.