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Union Groups Mobilize To Keep Moderate Democrats In Line For Biden's Proposals

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Union groups are mobilizing to make sure moderate Democrats stay in line behind President Biden's $2 trillion plan for infrastructure and jobs. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from deeply Republican West Virginia, is at the top of the list. NPR's Don Gonyea traveled to the state to report on the union's efforts.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: When the president outlined his massive proposal, Senator Joe Manchin immediately voiced concerns about the size of its corporate tax hikes. Right away, it underscored a simple fact; without Manchin on board, the plan goes nowhere. Unions took that as a cue to mobilize and to educate.

MARY KAY HENRY: I think it's really important to break down the aspects of the Jobs Plan state by state.

GONYEA: That's Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU represents thousands of minimum wage home-care workers in West Virginia. It's a mostly female occupation that would get a huge boost from the Biden plan.

HENRY: We intend to make sure she is seen by Senator Manchin and Senator Manchin understands that 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.

GONYEA: That process is now underway by the SEIU and its allies. One group, the Working Families Party, is running print and TV ads to pressure Manchin. They're also hosting socially distanced outdoor concerts called Jammin' for Jobs.

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GONYEA: At one event, the bands performed on a downtown rooftop with the audience on a parking garage across the street.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) People, let me tell you what we're fighting for. We're fighting for our future. Don't you understand?

GONYEA: Sixty-four-year-old Vikki Tully is a grandmother, a Head Start teacher and a member of SEIU Local 1199 in West Virginia.

VIKKI TULLY: I was raised in a union home. I'm a coal miner's daughter.

GONYEA: Lately, she's been meeting with home-care workers all over the state to ask them to sign personalized cards urging Senator Manchin to support the plan. Tully says don't forget; union members turned out for Manchin when he won re-election by a slim margin in 2018.

TULLY: We stood up for him to get him where he's at. He needs to stand with us now.

GONYEA: One thing stands out as you watch this union effort. It's all very polite, unlike so many political campaigns. Tully says that's a bit unusual for the SEIU, which she says is known for its in-your-face activism.

TULLY: But that's not what it's going to take right now. You can catch more flies with honey than you can vinegar, so we're trying to go that route now and until it's needed to do it the other way.

GONYEA: They're treating Manchin like an ally, not a political opponent. Then there's the West Virginia AFL-CIO. President Josh Sword says they've not ruled out public events down the road, but right now they're taking advantage of their long-standing relationship with Manchin and talking. This is a state Donald Trump carried by 39 points. Sword estimates that half of his union members voted Trump, but he says they still want the jobs the infrastructure plan will bring.

JOSH SWORD: I don't think you have to push Senator Joe Manchin on infrastructure.

GONYEA: Just yesterday, Manchin told reporters the infrastructure bill should focus on traditional infrastructure - roads, bridges, rail and the like. He said things in the Biden plan like home care can be addressed separately. Sword says it's all classic Manchin, trying to find middle ground.

SWORD: As frustrating as it can be at times to have conversations like this, I certainly appreciate the fact that we're in the game. And that at the end of the day, I believe that Joe Manchin is going to do the right thing.

GONYEA: Hanging over the infrastructure debate are two recent moves by Manchin. He's now a co-sponsor of the pro-union PRO Act, but he also last month rejected a union-backed $15-an-hour minimum wage. That all makes it a delicate dance for labor groups. And with Joe Manchin center stage in a 50-50 Senate, it's a dance that's likely to continue well beyond infrastructure. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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