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Kamala Harris to speak at SEIU convention set to elect the union’s first Black president

SEIU's April Verrett said that while some working class voters may see an appeal in Trump, the union will “have to help people cut through the noise and get to the truth."

WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris is set to deliver the keynote address at the Service Employees International Union convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday, one day after the group is expected to elect its first Black president.

April Verrett, who is secretary-treasurer of the 103-year-old union, is running unopposed but has received the support of leaders who represent 89% of SEIU’s membership, according to a letter they wrote earlier this year.

The massive union, which represents nearly 2 million workers in health care, property service and the government, has pledged to spend $200 million to help President Joe Biden and Democrats in key battlegrounds this year, an effort that will begin in earnest next week.

The significant expenditure by organized labor comes as Biden is facing an erosion of support from Black voters, compared to 2020. While 87% of Black voters backed him four years ago, according to exit polls, the latest national NBC News poll indicates that level of support has dipped to 71%.

“This is the same president and the same people. That hasn’t changed, and who he is hasn’t changed, quite frankly,” Verrett said in an exclusive interview with NBC News. “What I believe we have is an enthusiasm problem.”

Verrett said that while many Americans have been successful in raising their wages, that “doesn’t go as far in the grocery store and the gas tanks,” given the current economic picture and inflation.

“So while people are really grappling with the everyday issues, I just think they haven’t been paying enough attention” to the political race, Verrett said. “They’re worried about surviving.”

April Verrett speaks onstage
April Verrett is poised to become SEIU’s first Black president.Phillip Faraone / Getty Images for Caring Across Generations file

SEIU is targeting about 6 million people who either haven’t voted before or are less likely to do so, including voters of color in states like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. They believe those voters could be the critical difference makers in a razor-thin election.

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“We will be able to get their attention and we will be able to connect the dots: The way you make your life easier is by re-electing President Biden because I bet they know their lives are better now than they were under President Trump,” she said.

Verrett acknowledged that while some working class voters may see an appeal in voting for the former president, SEIU will “have to help people cut through the noise and get to the truth,” citing Biden’s record on historically low Black unemployment rates, for instance.

She also believes that the energy seen on picket lines across the country, from United Auto Workers to Kaiser Permanente, in the last few years will translate directly to action at the ballot box this fall.

“Workers are on fire for having a voice, workers are on fire for knowing that they have power and they want to use their power,” Verrett said.

The union also plans to invest heavily in Senate races in Montana and Ohio, along with key congressional districts in California and New York. SEIU endorsed Biden the day he announced his re-election bid in April of last year. The union also endorsed him in 2020.

Verrett and Harris have known each other for years, going back to when they both worked in California. Harris is expected to reference Verrett’s historic union presidency on Tuesday, according to a source familiar with her prepared remarks.

“She has, in some ways, walked this path that I’m on and has been really generous with me about sharing her advice and her support,” Verrett said.

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Last month, Harris joined SEIU and nursing home workers in Wisconsin to announce two new federal rules that would establish minimum staffing requirements for federally funded nursing homes and help increase pay for their workers.

Harris has also recently traveled to Pennsylvania and Nevada to highlight the administration’s work aimed at helping workers and unions, including student loan forgiveness for social workers, as well as executive action that expands apprenticeship programs.

But while Biden and Harris have both campaigned extensively on their economic agenda in recent months, Verrett conceded that the message isn’t always breaking through with some important voters.

“I think that the administration can probably do a better job of communicating what has changed and what they have done,” Verrett said.

“This is about individuals and how they view their lives and how they can view their future…. We just got to make sure people understand it,” adding that Biden, throughout his decades in public service, “has stood on the side of working people.”

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