Joe Biden Warns The Right Is 'Intent On Breaking' Labor Unions

03/09/2015 06:54 pm ET | Updated Mar 10, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Speaking to the leading labor union for firefighters on Monday, Vice President Joe Biden hammered the GOP for pursuing budget cuts and trying to restrict collective bargaining rights, telling the crowd that Republicans are "willing to sacrifice your needs on the altar of ideology."

"They act as if you are the problem, as if you caused the recession," Biden told the firefighters. "It's a remarkable worldview some of these folks have. ... We have to change the dismissive contempt that's taken hold in this new outfit."

Biden's speech was part of a two-day, bipartisan parade of politicians -- many of them harboring presidential ambitions -- who spoke to the International Association of Fire Fighters in the nation's capital. The labor union represents 300,000 firefighters and paramedics around the country, with the membership split almost evenly along partisan lines.

The mostly Democratic lineup on Monday, which included Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.), returned often to the subject of conservative attacks on public and private sector unions. Republican governors and legislators in several states have recently been pushing right-to-work laws and restrictions on collective bargaining in the public sector, often with great success.

Biden, repeating a line he's used before with union crowds, said the right is waging a "war ... on labor's house."

"There is a concentrated, well-organized, well-paid, well-funded effort to undermine organized labor," the vice president said. "And they've been remarkably successful. You, labor writ large, are the only thing that stands between the people's interest and the special interests owning it all. They know without you it's a clear shot at whatever they want. That's why they're so intent on breaking you."

Biden noted the mostly Republican lineup of speakers slated for Tuesday, including Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

"Ask them whether they think you're a drag on the community, whether you're an obstacle to overcome, or whether you are the community," Biden said.

Durbin made a point of criticizing his home state governor, Republican Bruce Rauner. The governor recently signed an executive order barring public sector unions in Illinois from automatically collecting what are known as fair-share fees from workers. Such fees cover the administrative costs of bargaining for non-union members who are covered under the union's contract.

Durbin painted Rauner, who for years headed a private equity firm, as a wealthy politician bent on attacking labor. (The governor insists he is "not anti-union.")

"He's a man who's been pretty fortunate in life," Durbin said. "I don't hold it against him for having that money. ... What I do hold against him is his passionate war against unions."

Noting that Wisconsin was embracing the right-to-work creed -- in fact, Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed the legislation on Monday -- Durbin said that Illinois was fast becoming "an island," a right-to-work outlier, in the Midwest. Indiana and Michigan both passed right-to-work legislation in 2012.

Such laws forbid unions and employers from reaching contracts that require all workers to pay the union for bargaining on their behalf. The laws can lead to what unions call "freeloading," as workers who don't help support the union can nonetheless benefit from its contract.

"This governor is determined to make us a right-to-work state," Durbin said of Rauner. "But we're going to keep unions strong in the state of Illinois."

In his speech, Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said that business interests were pitting workers against one another, "fostering jealousies," to unravel health benefits and pensions and put downward pressure on wages.

"They spend unseemly amounts of money to convince the masses that if someone has a better retirement, a better contract, better benefits than you do, then the solution has to be to take theirs away from them," Schaitberger said.

The union leader also took time to criticize the possibility of "fast tracking" the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal sought by the White House and many Republicans in Congress. Unions, along with liberal Democrats, have strongly opposed the deal, saying it would undermine labor and environmental standards while driving down wages.

"It’s nothing more than a fast track to fewer American jobs again, lower wages for American workers and reduced tax revenue for American communities that rely on those jobs," Schaitberger said.

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