President Joe Biden put on a red United Auto Workers shirt on Thursday as he celebrated a labor deal that will prevent Belvidere’s Stellantis plant from closing, treating the factory’s salvation as a vindication of his decision to stand with striking union members as they demanded higher wages.
“American workers are ready to work harder than anyone else,” Biden told cheering autoworkers in a community center in the northern Illinois city. “But they just need to be given a shot. A fair shot and a fair wage.”
He praised the union members as “as tough, tough, tough as they come.” Someone in the audience shouted to the president, “That shirt looks good on you.” “I’ve worn this shirt a lot, man,” Biden responded. “You have no idea. I’ve been involved with the UAW longer than you’ve been alive.” The crowd roared with laughter.
Biden visited a UAW picket line in Michigan in September to support the union during its targeted strikes against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, the maker of Jeep, Dodge and Ram vehicles. The strikes have ended and contracts are still being finalized. “He came out and stood with the picketers,” said Matt Franzen, the local UAW president who introduced Biden. “He’s always been for us, with us. He proved that.”
Biden reminded the audience that Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, visited a nonunion facility on his own trip to Michigan. “I hope you guys have a memory,” Biden said. “Where I come from, it matters.” Biden learned that the Stellantis factory could close during a trip to Chicago on June 28, when he spoke about the economy.
The prospect became an immediate priority for Biden. He ordered up an economic analysis and spoke to company officials about the plant, according to White House officials. The Democratic president wanted to show that his policies could deliver for workers, rather than repeat the decades of factory closures that had gutted parts of the Midwest and fed into a deep political divide.
The reopening “goes to the heart of who he is, the heart of his vision for the country and how he’s led,” said Jen O’Malley Dillon, White House deputy chief of staff.
Stellantis agreed to hire back 1,200 employees to build pickup trucks and to add 1,300 more workers for a battery factory.
The resolution of the strike was an early victory for what Biden says is a worker-centered economy. But the success of the factory and of the tentative contract with workers will ultimately hinge on the ability of automakers to keep generating profits as they shift toward electric vehicles in a competitive market.
Many voters still feel dour about the overall economy, and there is an open question as to whether the UAW contract and signs of wages outpacing inflation can change their views. In polls, U.S. adults have consistently given Biden low marks on the economy after a burst of inflation as the pandemic began to recede.
O’Malley Dillon said the UAW contracts and the auto plant reopening reflect a larger focus on workers by the president. Unionized nurses, truck drivers and others also negotiated to receive pay raises by pushing their employers to recognize the value of their work. On Wednesday, Hollywood actors joined script writers by achieving a tentative contract agreement after a prolonged strike. It reflects a broader trend over the past year that was made possible in part by a strong job market as the unemployment rate is at a healthy 3.9%.
Labor unions tend to be reliable supporters of Democrats. But by speaking at factories and union halls, Biden is also trying to reach disaffected blue-collar voters who found a voice in Trump.
Biden argues that innovations within the auto sector such as EVs should not lead to layoffs and factory closures.
Trump has said that the rise of EVs backed by the Biden administration will cause factory job losses. He has suggested that the work will migrate to China and that the United States should stick with gasoline-powered vehicles, even though the emissions worsen climate change.
Biden has a slightly better record on auto industry jobs than Trump. During Trump’s presidency, the number of manufacturing jobs in the sector peaked at a little more than 1 million in early 2019 and then began to decline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are nearly 1.1 million auto manufacturing jobs under Biden.
The EV shift does carry a risk for automakers. Sales have started to slow amid concerns about recharging and the expensive price of the vehicles, despite tax incentives designed to improve affordability.
On Thursday, Biden met with UAW President Shawn Fain and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, D-Ill. The president planned to hold a fundraiser in Chicago later in the day.
During the nearly 45-day strike that hit the automakers, the White House chose to talk to all parties while letting the UAW execute its strategy of targeted work stoppages. Biden took the step of joining workers on the picket line, a presidential first.
In calls that White House officials had with Stellantis, the company was never pressured to open the Belvidere factory, but Biden raised the matter. His choice to sympathize with workers as the strike escalated carried some political risk as high interest rates on auto loans and inflation coming out of the pandemic have become points of criticism by Republican lawmakers.
The contracts, if approved by 146,000 union members in the coming weeks, would dramatically raise pay for autoworkers. They would get pay increases and cost-of-living adjustments that would translate into a 33% wage gain. Top assembly plant workers would earn roughly $42 per hour.
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