On Thursday, January 25, President Joe Biden came to Duluth and Superior to celebrate the $1 billion-plus federal grant to replace the Blatnik Bridge. This project will provide hundreds of union jobs and replace a vitally important bridge that is at the end of its useful life.
Biden’s visit was a great opportunity to celebrate progress, but it’s clear there was something bigger going on while he was here. This visit by the president was organized with the help of Labor, and it showed. The Building Trades were in the spotlight, of course, but people in other unions helped make the visit an overwhelming success.
In this article, you’ll hear from members of the Building Trades, in their own words, what it was like to meet the president in this context. Deeply personal (with occasional strong language), it’s a snapshot of history.
In the article at the bottom of the page, you’ll hear from members of other unions and their impressions of the day.
President, Northern Wisconsin Construction & Building Trades Council
Assistant business manager, IBEW 242
That entire day was so surreal.
On Tuesday, we were out dropping some literature in the Allouez area about NTEC, and I heard a helicopter and saw it bank over us. It was green with a cream-colored strip, and I thought, wow, that looks like Marine 1, and then it banked and headed back to the airbase. When I got back to my office, the IBEW government affairs department called, and I said, “Well, that’s ironic — I think I just saw Marine One,” and he said, that’s why I’m calling. Biden’s coming, and they want you to help coordinate.
I was fortunate enough to be one of the six to meet President Biden once he arrived at the Blatnik Bridge at the end of Connors Point. I was fortunate to be one of three greeters when he came out of the Beast.
He came out and shook our hands, and then walked
to the other side of the parking lot where everyone else was standing so we had the bridge as a backdrop. Biden made some remarks and then he pretty much immediately came to us and addressed the Building Trades as a whole, talking about how thankful he is to unions, how much he supports them, and what the federal funding means for us to put thousands of union members to work and help our families.
After that when we were at Cedar Lounge, we were at the bar and there were other prominent community members on the other side, and one of the staffers told us we had already met Biden and he was on a tight schedule, so he probably wouldn’t be talking with us. But when one of the staffers told him it was time to get going, Biden looked at us and said, “Not until I talk to these guys, these guys are the reason I’m here.”
We mingled for at least half an hour. He just talked about anything and everything; he’s just an all-around genuine individual. He cares about everybody regardless of what your affiliations are.
I was able to talk to him about NTEC, and then his staffer said, “All right, Mr. President, we really gotta get going.” I said, “I have one last question — I got a text from my wife, and she said if I met you, could I give you a hug for her?” He said “fuck no, man,” with a big smile, and then came in and gave me a big hug.
And then he asked where my wife was. I said she’s at work, she’s an RN at Essentia in Superior. He said, “God bless her, nurses are so overworked and underpaid.” Then he asked if I had a phone, and to give her a call. I was like, no way, this is what we’re going to do? Unbelievable. I called her number, he asked what her name was, and took the phone out of my hand and left her a voice mail because she wasn’t able to answer at work. She called back about a minute later and said, “did you call?” I said, “did you listen to your voice mail? You should go listen.” She was so excited and played it for her co-workers, they couldn’t believe it was happening.
Immediately after that, he went to the Superior Fire Department, directly across from her work, and they were all about to look out the windows and see him.
In the whole experience from getting the call from the white house, to actually waiting on Connors Point, to greeting him and riding in the motorcade, and that really intimate time with him, just in a regular setting…it felt like you could talk to him forages, and relate to him so well. You can see how genuine and down-to-earth he is, more than any president ever.
Right when he was leaving the Cedar Lounge, he pointed to us in the Building Trades and said, “anything they want, all night long, it’s on my.” We started a “Biden, Biden” chant” as he was leaving. It was a perfect sendoff.
To have a sitting president come to Superior, Wisconsin, it’s unprecedented. But so is more than a billion dollars in federal financing for a bridge. It was all just unreal.
President, Duluth Construction and Building Trades Council
President of IUPAT District Council 82 and business
manager of Local 106
Early in that week, when I got a call and it said WHITE HOUSE on the caller ID, I was skeptical. But it was the White House, looking to put something together about the bridge. We were able to bring in some of our executive board folks, people from each of the respective crafts, and we got our logistics email at 1:30 the morning of the event.
We got our schedules lined up and took a truck to the end of Connor’s Point. There was a checkpoint off the highway and we were there early, so when we got through that we had to wait in front of the other security checkpoint, the one with drug dogs and bomb dogs.
Myself and Kyle [Bukovich] and Craig [Thompson] were the welcoming party, and when Biden came out, it was instantly like he was part of the group. He wasn’t standoffish, we just had a warm conversation about how we’ve been. Craig did his speech thanking Biden for the funding, and that’s when Joe Biden turned and pointed at us and said, “This is about Labor. You guys.” He turned from the regular politicians and his thoughts and remarks were directed to us, the Building Trades.
When it was time to transition over to Earth Rider, the lead security guy said, “We gotta go, Mr. President,” but Biden leaned into us and covered up his lapel microphone and said, “I’m not fucking going, I’m going to hang with you guys.” He was very genuine. He’s a people’s person, that’s who he is.
He’s been the most proactive union-oriented president that I’ve ever seen, and I think he will continue to be the most proactive president in history. It’s going to be hard to top what he’s done for middle-class and the Labor movement
Just being in this group, in the motorcade, it was this sense of intense wowness. I don’t know how else to explain it.
The hardhat picture — it started off as Don Smith and myself and Amy Klobuchar were going to take a picture, and Keith [Musolf] said “I’m going to photobomb this” and Biden said, “Nope, I’M going to photobomb it” and grabs the hardhat and jumps in.
It’s going to be one of the highlights of my career. It was just a comfortable, casual person-to-person situation. I was so pleased to welcome him and be introduced with him and stand next to him, but then the whole second portion of the day — nobody knew that was coming. It was like having a beer with buddies. We were buddies hanging out, just normal folks.
Laborers Local 1091
I’ve been doing this for a long time, but to have him come here and discuss something that’s so important to us — not just personally but locally and the entire Labor movement — it was different. When we were talking to him, it was up close and personal stuff. He did all of his formal comments, but when we were standing there at the bridge, he was talking like a human being. “I told you guys two years ago we’d get this done.” For me to sit there and shake his hand and have him poke me in the chest…All my adult life I’ve been a Democrat, and this was a big deal. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet four different presidents, and this by far is the best experience I’ve had.
And that was the thing: Out of all the people — two governors, three senators, two mayors, the Wisconsin transportation director — he came and talked to us. He talked about what we were going to do and what we needed for the bridge. The Secret Service is so professional, but when we had the opportunity, they let us talk to the president. Nobody got in our way. That one on one with him, just BSing with him, we had a blast. You can see it in our faces. He talked to us as construction workers and he was proud, as I know I am, to support Labor.
Laborers Local 1091 and
president of the Duluth Central Labor Body
What a surreal experience! He made a promise two years ago and he delivered. He’s a genuine and down-to-earth person. Regardless of what you see and read online, he speaks like one of us — you truly feel that he’s for Labor and supports Labor. He’s the most pro-Labor president in history and our members need to know that. The things he’s done as the president will lead to years of work for our members. We had the president, senators and governors from two states there that day, all praising Labor. We don’t see that in many areas of the country.
And our time at the Cedar Lounge was amazing. I’ve had a beer with the president; how many people can say that?
IBEW Local 242
It was an amazing day. It definitely lifted the energy for all of us — this is kind of a small town, and the president put us on the map. It really made you feel honored and humble — he’s paying attention.
It was a great day overall, and my favorite moment was when his advisor told the president, “we gotta get going, we’ve got a schedule to keep,” and Biden turned around and said, “who’s the president, you or me?” And his advisor was like, “You’re the president, Mr. President,” and Biden said, “that’s right, and I’m not going anywhere — these are my people and I want to hang with them for a bit.” He said he loved getting out and being with people but that he was always on a tight schedule.
At the tap room, it was like he was even more able to do that. He came in, and he was in more comfortable clothes and we were all able to get in out of the weather, and he spent some time just talking with us — and then picked up our tab.
He’s really a genuine, normal person. When we were at the bar and able to just chat with him, like normal people at the bar having a beer, we didn’t talk business. It was about family. And then he left that message [for Kyle Bukovich’s wife], saying, “I’d much rather be hugging you, Dana, than your husband,” that was such a cool moment. They portray him as old and slow; it’s nothing like that. He’s sharp and smart and funny.
And that moment where I’m touching him — he was talking about the IBEW and the support we gave him in the 2020 election and he’ll never forget that and needs our support in 2024, and I put my hand on his chest and was like, “We’re going to take care of you, Mr. President,” and all the guys started laughing. I think the Secret Service may have looked a little more closely, but it was great.
I’d love to go back to that day and do it all over again.
Ironworkers Local 512 and St. Louis County Commissioner
That day had been a few years in the making, obviously, with the president being at the Blatnik Bridge two years ago, and then after passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill, he promised he’d be back to fund the Blatnik Bridge. Being true to his word, two year’s later he’s back.
To me, that was first and foremost the biggest highlight — he stuck to his word to us as Building Trades folks, and now we’re getting an iconic project that will provide hundreds of local jobs for several years.
I’m not sure how many folks can say they spent a couple hours with the president in an intimate setting like that. It was really cool to be there, to hang out and have conversations off the cuff.
The hardhat thing — I never thought I’d go viral, for better or worse. I cherish that photo with the Ironworker logos in it. Biden had bounced around the bar, getting photos — it was all in a joking, fun manner, he was living our excitement with us. (And it was Ironworker tradition to wear it backwards, for the headgear attachments like a welding hood.)
I had brought a handful of Ironworkers stocking hats with, and the president took one; I gave some to staff and Secret Service. It was fun to talk with them too; they said, we don’t ever see him act like this, he’s comfortable with you guys. We were having a genuine time with him that wasn’t structured, and according to them, that doesn’t get to happen often. I enjoy what we had on that day and what it means to all of us.