Joe Biden Philadelphia

Joe Biden will accept the Democratic nomination from home, rather than come to Milwaukee to accept it at the Democratic National Convention. 

(The Center Square) – Native son Joe Biden’s acceptance of progressive energy and climate policies risks alienating the blue collar workers he needs to carry Pennsylvania in November’s election.

At least, so say the union leaders and lawmakers residing in key battlegrounds of the state, where fossil fuels underpin a network of jobs in mining, trade, construction and manufacturing. 

Jim Kunz, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66, said the Democratic Party’s leftward migration – especially on clean energy and fracking – more often than not threatens the jobs his 8,000 members rely upon.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult to support or endorse Joe Biden with the positions he seems to be leaning toward when it comes to energy,” Kunz said. “He seems to be going down the same road as Hillary Clinton in 2016, which I think was instrumental to her loss in Pennsylvania.”

Biden, former President Barack Obama's vice president from 2009 to 2017 and the Democratic Party's presumptive presidential nominee, was raised in Scranton, Pa.

President Donald Trump flipped the reliably blue Keystone state in 2016 by 44,292 votes. In the three counties that pivoted Republican – Erie, Luzerne and Northampton – state data show residents work primarily in blue collar industries supported by coal and natural gas development. 

Trump campaigned on a promise “to bring back coal” and advance economic policies that preserved union-backed jobs in manufacturing, energy and trade. His tune hasn’t changed much over the last four years, either. 

During an August visit to Royal Dutch Shell’s Petrochemical Complex in Beaver County, Trump implored a room full of construction workers – whom he said owe their jobs to his policies – to convince their union leaders to support his re-election. 

“And if they don’t, vote them the hell out of office,” he said.

Historically, the Democratic Party’s support for prevailing wage and workers rights would have made Trump’s appeal untenable, but not so much in recent years, Kunz said.

“At least out here in the west, as they move left, they are losing construction workers and, I suspect, other blue collar workers, too,” he said.

Then there’s the Democratic National Committee’s climate policy recommendations for its 2020 platform, which among other things, would ban fracking, halt gas and coal exports and abandon new fossil fuel infrastructure – policies that would crush Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry and create a ripple effect across the state’s labor market. 

“It’s definitely impacting the building trades and other unions,” Kunz said, whose organization represents heavy equipment operators in 33 counties across the state and three in Ohio. "We get a lot of employment out of the Marcellus and Utica shale plays.” 

Some 250 miles across the state in his native Luzerne County, Sen. John Yudichak shared similar sentiments. The longtime Democratic lawmaker left the party last year to become the Senate’s only independent member, and he now caucuses with Republicans.

“Well, if the national Democratic platform is 'your jobs don’t matter,' you’re going to have a hard time competing for votes,” he said. “You cannot devalue someone’s job. This idea that you can’t have aggressive climate action and a robust energy sector, they aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Yudichak said the Democratic Party’s drift away from blue collar workers left his constituents “out of the conversation” in 2016 – a prime factor in the county’s swing for Trump – and it remains to be seen if Biden will win them back.

“If narrow ideological interests are more important than someone’s ability to move up the economic ladder, you’re not going to get those votes,” he said. “They felt forgotten. This is a blue collar region and has traditionally voted, since President [John] Kennedy, for the Democratic candidate.”

Although he admits Biden, in years past, has been “strong” on energy and jobs, his party’s current policies “put him in a tough spot.”

“The [environmental] platform being put forth by the national Democratic Party … all of these things are not achievable,” he said.

Biden’s own platform describes the Green New Deal as a key legislative piece of the nation’s clean energy transition – one he said won’t leave behind coal plant workers and others who’ve staked their livelihoods in sectors anchored by fossil fuels.

In public, however, Biden’s comments about retraining coal miners to “learn code” or his shifting views on fracking – the latest of which he said he would only ban on federal lands – leaves Kunz, “a lifelong Democrat,” stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“I don’t know how he walks back those comments he’s made,” he said. “We get stuck in the middle of trying to cherry pick candidates and telling our members to just go with their conscience.”

Yudichak said pushing policies that stifle natural gas production “is not a good election strategy” in Pennsylvania. The industry, he said, proved instrumental during the COVID-19 pandemic when manufacturers worked around the clock – 30 days in a row in one county – to produce personal protective equipment for front-line workers.

And that’s not to mention the 300,000 other jobs credited to the industry, he said, that “we can’t just walk away from.”

“To walk away from natural gas, to ban fracking, to ban oil and gas exports and all that is being proposed in the Democratic platform – which sounds a lot like the Green New Deal – is not flying in Pennsylvania,” he said. “We are not going to disarm when competing with China for manufacturing jobs.”

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.