Campaigns & Elections

VP Harris continues Biden campaign focus on courting union voters in Philadelphia visit

The vice president addressed the SEIU a day after it elected its first Black woman president

Vice President Kamala Harris returned to Pennsylvania on Tuesday, continuing the Biden-Harris campaign’s focus on earning the support of labor unions.

Vice President Kamala Harris returned to Pennsylvania on Tuesday, continuing the Biden-Harris campaign’s focus on earning the support of labor unions. Wikimedia Commons

By John Cole

Vice President Kamala Harris returned to Pennsylvania on Tuesday, continuing the Biden-Harris campaign’s focus on earning the support of labor unions. Harris delivered the keynote address to the Service Employees International Union gathering at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

“Since your founding SEIU, you have been on the front lines of every major expansion of rights for the American people,” Harris said.

She spoke to the SEIU a day after the organization elected April Verrett its first Black woman president. “Talk about a phenomenal woman and a powerful fighter for justice and fairness,” Harris said of Verrett. “I know firsthand that April is a leader who is always guided by an uncompromising focus on worker empowerment and their rights.”

Harris reiterated the Biden administration’s defense of the Affordable Care Act, which she said they want to strengthen. She blasted former President Donald Trump’s unsuccessful efforts to repeal and replace the health care law while he was in office. And she touched on other familiar campaign talking points: noting the Biden administration’s efforts to reduce prescription drug costs and to reduce student debt.

“We have already canceled nearly $160 billion in student loan debt for more than 4.5 million Americans,” she said. And, she vowed support for a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Harris also called out the use of the phrase “unified reich” in a video Trump posted to social media and later deleted.

“This kind of rhetoric is unsurprising coming from the former president and it is appalling,” Harris said. “And we’ve got to tell him who we are. And once again it shows that our freedom and our very democracy are at stake.”

Steve Catanese, president of SEIU Local 668, told the Capital-Star that during the convention, attendees heard stories from members about ongoing efforts to form and join unions. He noted that the Biden administration had taken steps to reform the National Labor Relations Board. Harris on Tuesday reiterated the administration’s support for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would amend the National Labor Relations Act to make it easier for workers to organize and stiffen penalties against employers who violate it.

“At least hearing it from the audience, I think the biggest cheer really came up when she talked about making it easier to form and join a union,” Catanese said after the vice president’s remarks.

Competing chants from the audience of “free Palestine” and “four more years” broke out numerous times during Harris’s 20-minute speech. 

“There were a lot of workers up there that were clearly excited for the Biden-Harris campaign and chanting favorably about Kamala Harris,” Catanese told the Capital-Star. “There were workers that walked in and had protests in the back and I think their protests came from a place of moral stance of what they think is right.”

The SEIU passed a resolution on Monday during the convention calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, Catanese added.

“Many of the workers felt very strongly about that and wanted to express that,” Catanese said. “They have the right to express those opinions and our goal is to make sure that they had the freedom to express that and that the other workers who wanted to express their appreciation for the administration could do that as well.”

He added that workers within the SEIU respect each other. “We live in a robust democracy and their voice should be respected.”

After departing the convention center, Harris made an unannounced stop at Jim’s West for a cheesesteak. She tried to order two cheesesteaks with provolone, according to pool reports, but was persuaded to try one with Whiz. She was joined at Jim’s by state Sen. Vincent Hughes and U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle.

As she waited for her order, Harris was asked if enough aid was getting into Gaza. “The president and I have been very clear that more aid needs to get into Gaza and that we have concerns,” she replied. “We have been obviously doing work to make sure that we can increase the opportunity and possibility of aid getting in, such as the construction of that dock.”

Harris was asked about the protests during her speech; she said that protesting was “part of the tradition” of this country.

Tuesday was Harris’ second visit to Pennsylvania this month, following an appearance in Montgomery County where she joined actress Sheryl Lee Ralph for a discussion on reproductive rights. Three of Harris’ four visits to Pennsylvania this year have been in the southeast, a densely populated region where Democrats rely on racking up big numbers to carry the state’s 19 electoral votes. 

President Joe Biden has made seven appearances in Pennsylvania so far this year, including a weeklong visit to three cities the week before the state’s primary election. Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, has visited Pennsylvania three times in 2024, speaking to gun rights supporters in Harrisburg and at a rally in the Lehigh Valley. His only visit to Philadelphia was in February, where he unveiled a new line of Trump-branded shoes at Sneaker Con. 

Trump also held a rally in Wildwood, New Jersey earlier this month, an event with plenty of Pennsyvlanians in attendance.

Polling from AARP Pennsylvania and Muhlenberg College released earlier this month showed Trump with a narrow lead over Biden, although U.S. Sen. Bob Casey has a slight advantage over Republican challenger David McCormick.

The Cook Political Report, a national ratings outlet, rates the presidential race as a toss-up in Pennsylvania, the state with the most electoral votes on the line with that distinction. 

John Cole is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.