Joe Biden visited the Detroit Auto Show in September of last year accompanied by Mary Barra, president of General Motors. On Tuesday he will return to Michigan, but this time to support those who are striking against the Big Three in Detroit: General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. The president of the United States will make history by joining the striking workers, picking up the gauntlet thrown down on Friday by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union president, Shawn Fain. Just over a year before the elections in which a second term is at stake, Biden — who has declared himself the most pro-union president in history — wants to show his support for a segment of the population whose vote can be decisive in key states.
“Tuesday, I’ll go to Michigan to join the picket line and stand in solidarity with the men and women of UAW as they fight for a fair share of the value they helped create. It’s time for a win-win agreement that keeps American auto manufacturing thriving with well-paid UAW jobs,” the president wrote on X, the social network formerly called Twitter.
It was the response to a deliberate, public invitation issued earlier by the union leader. “We invite and encourage everyone who supports our cause to join us on the picket line, from our friends and family all the way up to the president of the United States. We invite you to join our fight. The way you can help is to build our movement and show the companies that the public stands with us and stands with our elected national negotiators,” Fain said shortly after 10 a.m. in a video in which he called on workers to extend the strike to 38 component distribution centers throughout the country.
There is no precedent for a U.S. president joining a picket line, although it is unclear what form President Biden’s visit will take and where it will take place. In 1937, then Vice President John Nance Garner supported federal intervention to end the historic strike at the Flint auto body plant in Michigan, indirectly sowing the seeds of the UAW, but the idea was rejected by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president urged General Motors, then the largest company in the world, to recognize the union, which would become a very influential political player in the following decades.
President Biden campaigned hard with the unions before the mid-term elections to retain the blue collar vote in three traditionally Democratic states. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan are part of the so-called Rust Belt, where much of the United States’ heavy industry is concentrated. He won all three in 2020, as Donald Trump lost his bid for re-election.
Republican presidential candidates have insistently criticized Biden’s closeness to the unions. On Friday, the president also tweeted a video that alternates these criticisms from the right with images of him supporting the workers and their union leaders, and a single word: “Yes.”
The president had already shown his sympathies for the motor workers’ cause last week in a brief appearance at the White House. “Automotive companies have seen record profits, including the last few years, because of the extraordinary skill and sacrifices of UAW workers. But, in my view, those record profits have not been shared fairly with those workers,” he said. “In short, auto industry workers helped create the American middle class. They deserve a contract that sustains them and the middle class,” he added.
“I understand the workers’ frustration. Over generations, workers sacrificed so much to keep the industry alive and strong, especially through the economic crisis and the pandemic. Workers deserve a fair share of the profits they help create for an enterprise,” he insisted, reiterating his idea that strong unions are necessary for a strong economy. Regarding the negotiators, he said: “They have worked around the clock, and the companies have made some significant offers. But I think they should go further to ensure that record corporate profits mean record contracts for the UAW.”
Biden has tasked acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su and White House senior adviser Gene Sperling with the job of mediating “to offer their full support to the parties in reaching a contract.”
With his unprecedented move, Biden has outmaneuvered Trump, who has also planned a rally with union workers in Detroit on September 27. The political event has been deliberately timed to clash with the second Republican primary debate, scheduled for that day at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
Although he approved tax cuts for companies and individuals with high incomes, Trump is aware that to be elected president he needs to attract the vote of those workers disenchanted with globalization and the loss of purchasing power in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. In the state of Michigan, Trump won the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton, but lost the 2020 election against Joe Biden. Along with Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Arizona, it is one of the battleground states where the result of the presidential elections on November 5, 2024 will be decided.
According to The New York Times, which advanced the former president’s plans, Trump plans to speak in front of more than 500 workers, and his campaign plans to fill the room with a hand-picked audience made up of plumbers, pipe installers , electricians, and workers in the automotive sector. The union leader published a statement after learning of the former president’s plans, showing his hostility: “Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers. We can’t keep electing billionaires and millionaires that don’t have any understanding what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to get by and [then] expect them to solve the problems of the working class,” Fain said.
Biden’s campaign also lashed out at the former president. “Donald Trump is going to Michigan next week to lie to Michigan workers and pretend he didn’t spend his entire failed presidency selling them out at every turn. [...] No self-serving photo op can erase Trump’s four years of abandoning union workers and standing with his ultra-rich friends,” tweeted Ammar Moussa, spokesperson for Biden’s re-election campaign.
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