Joe Biden left an image for history on Tuesday, when he became the first U.S. president to join a picket line of striking workers. Megaphone in hand and accompanied by the leader of UAW, the automobile workers’ union with the greatest representation among the major North American brands, Biden very graphically showed his support for the workers against the bosses in a conflict seen as a symptom of fatigue by the working middle class in the face of inequality. The strike, of unprecedented scope, affects three symbols of the American auto industry, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, with demands for a salary update that will compensate for years of loss of purchasing power due to inflation. After two weeks, the conflict has spread to dozens of plants run by all three companies in 20 states, and only Ford seems to be making progress in negotiations to contain the strikes. Workers are asking for a 40% increase over four years, while employers are offering them half.
Biden’s action is consistent not only with his career, but with the current environment of discontent. Winning back Democratic enclaves in the industrial belt, which Donald Trump won by surprise in 2016, was essential for the current president’s victory in the 2020 elections. And it will be so again in 2024. The capacity for union organization and mobilization explains a good part of the progressive shift by large cities and industrial centers towards the Democratic Party. These are places without whose support one cannot reach the White House. The UAW has not yet endorsed Biden for 2024. An Ipsos poll reveals that 72% of Democratic voters and 48% of Republicans support the striking workers, an indicator of how the economic unrest cuts across ideological lines. Trump saw the electoral potential of this phenomenon while the rest of the Republican Party was busy promoting anti-union laws. Trump scheduled a visit to workers in Michigan on Wednesday while his rivals for the Republican nomination were holding their second debate.
Aside from the political context, these gestures reveal a rebirth of the union movement in the United States. Workers’ organizations have shaken off the old scent of corruption and cronyism and have regained leadership of the general discontent over the inequality that is shrinking the American middle class. The union wave has reached companies like Amazon and Starbucks. Massive strikes such as the one by screenwriters in Hollywood — where an agreement was announced on Monday — have contributed to making visible demands that are sector-specific but which connect with problems that can be extrapolated to all industries, such as the disproportionate increase in uneven pay between managers and workers and the impossibility of remaining in the middle class with jobs that were paying decent wages just one generation ago.
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