Biden Fires off Most Worker-Centric, Education-Focused State of the Union Speech in Memory

Last Thursday, President Joe Biden addressed Congress and the nation in his third official State of the Union address. The president broached a diverse set of topics, including the economy, international affairs, women’s reproductive rights, and immigration. The speech included several significant remarks supporting workers generally and educators specifically.

Texas unions were well represented at this historic event, with Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy in attendance as a special guest of Rep. Greg Casar (D-Austin) and Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson in attendance as a special guest of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston). This was the first time that a State of the Union was witnessed in person by an officer of the Texas AFL-CIO. Levy and Anderson were joined in the audience by AFL-CIO President Liz Schuler, who was invited by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisconsin).

Several other Texans were invited to the event, including Kate Cox, a Dallas mother who was forced to flee the state to receive a medically necessary abortion for her nonviable pregnancy, and Jazmin Cazares, whose 9-year-old sister Jackie was murdered at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, along with 18 other children and their two teachers. 

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (left) poses with her invited guest Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson (right).
Congressman Greg Casar (left) poses with union leaders AFL-CIO President Liz Schuler (center) and Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy (right).

In what was a clear highlight for public school educators, Biden declared midway through his speech that “I want to give public school teachers a raise!” Biden also highlighted his efforts to provide public service workers, including public school educators, with student loan forgiveness through the PSLF program. Biden accentuated this point by highlighting the story of Keenan Jones, a member of AFT-affiliated Education Minnesota and a special guest to the speech, who had his loans entirely forgiven through the PSLF program due to his years of work in Minnesota public schools.

Discussing public education, Biden stated, “To remain the strongest economy in the world we need the best education system in the world.” Biden went on to signal his support for universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, citing studies that show preschool-educated students are significantly more likely to graduate college and receive a postsecondary degree.

Economic fairness was a central feature of the president’s speech; Biden uttered the word “fair” or some variation 16 times. These comments echoed the Texas AFL-CIO’s campaign for a Fair Shot for Texas Workers. Biden specifically highlighted the United Auto Workers (UAW) and their successful campaign for a fair contract that kept manufacturing jobs in the United States.

“The middle class built this country,” Biden said emphatically. “And unions built the middle class!”

Though Biden never mentioned his “predecessor,” former President Donald Trump, by name, he indirectly referenced him several times. Biden attacked Trump’s attempts to undermine democracy through his support of January 6th insurrectionists, his promise to pass a national ban on reproductive freedom, and his attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Biden also lambasted his predecessor’s indifference to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, referencing Trump’s public comments telling Putin to “do whatever the hell you want” in Ukraine. On the topic of international relations, Biden reiterated his support for Ukraine and announced his support for an immediate, six-week ceasefire to the war in Gaza that has killed over 31,000 Palestinians and over 1,300 Israelis. Biden reiterated his demand that hostages be freed and safely returned. The Texas AFL-CIO was the first state labor federation to call for a ceasefire and return of hostages in Gaza.

Of special significance to Texans, Biden highlighted his attempt to pass comprehensive immigration and border security reform, an attempt thwarted by Republican extremists at the behest of Trump. Biden remarked that, while imperfect, this bipartisan compromise bill was supported by key stakeholders and would’ve accomplished many of the reforms Republican lawmakers had previously proposed.

In recent months much has been said about the age and vitality of the president and his opponent. Biden is 81 years old and his opponent, Trump, is 77. Biden went into the speech hoping to overcome those concerns. Reviews of the speech generally agreed that he succeeded in that goal, delivering what The Associated Press called a  “high energy, forceful speech.”

The president’s intention was clearly visible in the transcript of the State of the Union address. The transcript for this address included 80 exclamation points, whereas transcripts for Biden’s previous two State of the Union addresses contained none.

Following the speech Levy remarked, “Right now, the state of our unions is vibrant and growing. When [President Biden] talks about growing the economy out from the middle, and putting workers at the center of it, to me millions of people feel seen, feel heard and feel like, yes, they have somebody fighting for them in the White House.”