Joe Biden claims to be the most pro-union president in U.S. history. This Tuesday, he set out to prove it with an unusual act: he joined the picket line of the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike against the Detroit Big Three: General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis (which includes Chrysler). Megaphone in hand and wearing a union cap, he showed his support for the strikers’ demands: “Let’s keep going. You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid,” he said. “Wall Street didn’t build this country, the middle class built this country, and unions built the middle class,” he added, repeating a slogan he uses often.
The president acknowledged the sacrifices made by workers when the automobile industry was in crisis, and added: “Now they are doing incredibly well. And guess what? You should be doing incredibly well, too.”
“This is a historic moment: the first time a sitting U.S. president has joined the picket line,” said UAW President Shawn Fain, the Chrysler electrician-turned-union leader who invited Biden to join the protest. “Thank you, Mr. President, for coming to stand up with us in our generation-defining moment,” added Fain. “We do the heavy lifting. We do the real work.”
On the 12th day of the strike, Biden visited picket lines at a General Motors facility in Wayne County, Michigan, just outside Detroit. As a candidate in 2020, Biden joined the picket lines with casino workers in Las Vegas and motor workers in Kansas City, but there is no precedent for a sitting president has joined an ongoing strike. With his unprecedented visit, the Democrat pre-empted former president Donald Trump, who plans to hold a rally with union workers in Michigan on Wednesday at the same time as the second Republican primary debate will be happening at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. Michigan is one of the key states for the 2024 presidential election.
The president was greeted at the foot of the steps of Air Force One by the head of the UAW, Michigan Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist and three congresspeople. A large motorcade with the security detail that usually accompanies the president then proceeded to the factory, where pickets were more numerous than in recent days.
The UAW has been the most powerful and influential union in the United States throughout its 88-year history, but it had descended into an era of decadence and corruption, for which two of its presidents ended up in jail. Fain became the organization’s first directly elected union president in March. Despite Biden’s support for its demands, the UAW, unlike other unions, has not yet endorsed the Democratic president in the 2024 election.
The UAW is seeking increased salaries and pensions, as well as the elimination of the tiered wage system, in which new employees make half ($16 per hour) of incumbent workers, and guarantees for workers at the automakers’ electric vehicle (EV) battery plants.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Michigan that “Biden is fighting to ensure that the cars of the future will be built in America by unionized American workers in good-paying jobs, instead of being built in China.”
Trump stole from the Democrats the traditional support of a good part of the industrial workers in the Rust Belt of the United States, where heavy industry is concentrated. He beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, among other states where the weight of blue-collar workers is heavy. Those wins eventually gave him the presidency. Biden regained all three states in 2020 and, along with Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia, they may again be decisive in next year’s election. The U.S. president already campaigned insistently with unions before the midterm congressional elections, in 2020, to retain the labor vote in those three states.
Biden’s visit has not been well received by the companies on the other side of the strike. Last year at this time, Biden visited the Detroit Auto Show with Mary Barra, the head of General Motors. Now, a year later, he joined a protest in front of a General Motors plant.
Ahead of the president’s visit, one of the Big Three, Stellantis, defended itself: “On the first day of the strike, President Biden said UAW workers ‘deserve a contract that sustains them and the middle class.’ We agree and presented a record offer,” the company said in a written statement. “Here are the facts: 21.4% compounded wage increase including a 10% increase at ratification, $1 billion in retirement security benefits, inflation protection measure, job security and more,” the text added.
Stellantis goes on to call attention to competitors with non-union workers, including new EV makers such as Tesla. “A balanced agreement” must be reached “that fairly rewards our workforce for their contribution to our success, without significantly disadvantaging Stellantis against our non-union competitors,” the company concludes in the statement.
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