Biden in Portland: ‘Union workers are the best’

As President Joe Biden spoke in a Portland aircraft hangar, behind him stood union leaders invited by the White House. They came from the Oregon Building Trades Council and the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council, as well as UA Local 290, Cement Masons Local 555, Ironworkers Local 29, IBEW Local 48, Bricklayers Local 1, Fire Sprinkler Fitters UA Local 669, Painters Local 10, SMART Local 16, Elevator Constructors Local 23, Glaziers Local 740, Insulators Local 36, Laborers Local 737, Operating Engineers Local 701, Plasterers Local 82, and ATU Local 757. | PHOTO BY CHERYL JUETTEN


Word spread fast among local union officers: The president of the United States would be in Portland in a week, and he wanted union leaders to be there. On April 21, dozens of labor leaders gathered in a hangar at Portland Air National Guard Base, making up the biggest part of a local welcoming contingent. As President Joe Biden touted the jobs that are already arriving from the massive federal infrastructure investment many of the labor leaders stood behind him on risers.

The $1.4 trillion infrastructure package Biden signed in November includes $550 billion in new nationwide federal spending over the next five years to replace roadways and bridges, improve public transit and more. In Oregon, the bill includes $662 million in spending this year alone to fix roads and bridges, and $53 million in dedicated funding for bridges, Biden said.

The honor of introducing the president went to Lauren Heitzman, a sixth-term inside wire apprentice at IBEW Local 48. Heitzman said the infrastructure package is a major boost for union workers.

“It’s an investment in me and my union,” Heitzman said. “We are so proud to have a president who understands that building America back better means building union.”

Biden pointed out the infrastructure package dedicates $211 million in funding for airport modernization work in Oregon, including $42 million in 2022. At Portland International Airport, that means 1,250 jobs building a new main terminal, where workers are currently building and installing a mass-timber roof. Over 95% of that work is being done by union members, Biden added.

Biden told the crowd he’s been criticized for saying “union” so frequently, but he’s not about to stop.

“There’s a good reason for that: They’re the best workers in the world,” Biden said. “There’s a reason why it makes sense to have a union worker.”

Biden also praised apprentice training programs for their rigor. 

“It’s like going to college to get that apprenticeship,” he said. “It’s not a joke.”

Prior to his public remarks, Biden spoke briefly with local union leaders and posed for photos. 

Retired IBEW Local 48 business manager Ed Barnes—a relentless advocate of I-5 replacement bridge—used his moment of presidential face time to push for the bridge, and came away with a presidential coin as a token of the meeting.

“I love IBEW,” Biden said when IBEW Local 48 president Wayne Chow approached him for a photo. “You guys have been with me from the beginning of my career, and you stood by me all the way.” 

Chow thanked Biden for the infrastructure package and said the union would continue to back him.

“He’s the first president to go public and not be afraid to say the word ‘union,’ not to be afraid to say ‘project labor agreement,’” Chow told the Labor Press after the event. Chow said that filters down, creating an environment where the government officials under Biden are allowed to publicly support unions as well.

The event also featured remarks from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Oregon Governor Kate Brown, U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader.

DeFazio was the chief sponsor and a driving force behind the infrastructure bill. Beyond the initial money allocated for Oregon’s road and bridge repairs, DeFazio said there are additional funding opportunities the state can apply for through competitive grant programs in the bill. Major projects like the Interstate 5 bridge replacement or the Port of Coos Bay multimodal container terminal could be eligible for funding in the coming months and years.

After the hangar event, Biden attended a Democratic National Committee fundraiser at the Portland Yacht Club, where he spoke for about 30 minutes before returning to the airport to depart for Seattle.

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