DETROIT — President Joe Biden on Tuesday became the first sitting president to join a picket line with striking workers, vividly demonstrating his commitment to labor and its central role in his reelection campaign.
The president, donning a blue hat with a United Auto Workers symbol, stood on a wooden platform and used a bull horn to speak to the crowd of union members dressed in red. He was flanked by United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain.
“The unions built the middle class. That’s a fact. Let’s keep going,”
the president told the crowd outside of GM’s Willow Run Redistribution Center in Wayne County, Mich. “You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now.”
Biden’s choice to show solidarity with striking auto workers at a time of great promise and peril for the labor movement represented a tectonic shift for an office historically known for breaking strikes, not supporting them.
The move also appeared to be a clear counter to former President Donald Trump, who plans to visit Michigan on Wednesday instead of participating in the second Republican primary debate — the latest sign that both candidates have moved beyond the primary phase of the election and are focused on November 2024.
But for Biden, too, Tuesday’s trip suggested that he can’t take labor support for granted. Union leadership has already rallied behind the president’s reelection bid, but that hasn’t necessarily translated into support from rank-and-file members who have slowly been drifting away from the Democratic Party and who make up an important part of the electorate in must-win states for Biden. The UAW has held off on endorsing Biden, although it has made clear they will not support Trump.
After Biden’s remarks, Fain grabbed the bull horn and the president stepped back into the crowd. Biden put his arm around one striker as Fain thanked him for joining the picket line. The crowd cheered.
“Thank you for coming to stand up with us in our generation’s defining moment. And we know the president will do right by the working class,” Fain said. “And when we do right by the working class, you can leave the rest to us because we’re going to take care of this business.”
Reporters later asked the president if he supported a 40 percent wage increase for the auto workers. The union members surrounding him shouted “yes,” and after waiting a moment, Biden, too, said yes.
The White House’s decision to send Biden to the picket line was made public late last week after Fain’s frustrations with the president’s handling of the strike spilled out into the open.
On Tuesday, the president and Fain spoke in the presidential limo as they rode over from the airport to the picket line. One person familiar with the meeting, who was granted anonymity to describe a private conversation, said the discussion was not about an endorsement for the president’s reelection campaign but about a fair transition to electric vehicles. A second person familiar with the talk described it as a “good conversation.”
Comments that Biden made earlier this summer about how he hoped to avoid a strike had not sat well with Fain or with Michigan Democrats. And while the White House’s behind-the-scenes strategy proved more successful in the rail and dock worker negotiations, it wasn’t welcomed by Fain. The UAW leader wanted the president to be a more vocal advocate for autoworkers and rally the public around their cause.
Fain last week rebuffed the White House’s offer to send acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and economic adviser Gene Sperling to Michigan, signaling that only a visit from the president would be acceptable as the autoworkers prepared for a second week on strike. “We invite and encourage everyone who supports our cause to join us on the picket lines, from our friends and family all the way to the president of the United States,” Fain said in a Friday morning address.
There was also an uneasy sense among Democrats that they couldn’t risk ceding any political ground on the issue after Trump announced he would visit the battleground state, even though the former president has a far more complicated relationship with labor and will have to answer for the anti-union policies his administration pursued. A person familiar with Trump’s plans told POLITICO it was “unlikely” he would make a visit to the picket line due to logistics.
Early Wednesday morning, ahead of Trump’s visit, the UAW plans to release a new video on the Lordstown plant closure, which is seen as a broken promise by the former president, a person familiar with the union’s plans said. The video isn’t finalized and plans could change, the person added, but the video could include comments from Trump in 2017, when he promised Ohio residents that manufacturing jobs would return to the state. During a rally that year, he told a crowd in Youngstown, Ohio, “Don’t move. Don’t sell your house.”
The UAW is seeking a 36 percent hourly pay increase over the next four years, pointing to big profits that the auto companies raked in during the Covid pandemic that inflated CEO salaries but has yet to benefit workers. The union is also seeking the reinstatement of traditional pensions, improved health care benefits and a doing away with the automakers’ reliance on temporary workers and the two-tiered pay system. The auto companies have said the union’s demands are too expensive.
The UAW is targeting its strike to a limited number of plants owned by Ford, General Motors and Stellantis in order to keep the auto companies guessing and to cut down on the number of members needed to be paid from the strike fund. That strategy could help the union draw out the strike for weeks if the companies don’t budge. The union spared expanding its strike to additional Ford plants on Friday, putting it against General Motors and Stellantis, after it said the company had done more to meet its demands.
As Biden touched down in Michigan, there were lingering signs of the limits to how far he will go in support of the UAW’s demands. A day earlier, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to say whether the president supported specific elements of union demands, including some of their most basic ones such as wage increases. She said that the president wasn’t taking sides.
“This is for the parties to negotiate. We’re not going to speak to what’s being put at the table,” Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday. “We believe there’s an opportunity here for a win-win agreement.”
Rank-and-file union members, however, mostly saw the positive: For the first time ever, the president of the United States was marching with them, calling on their auto bosses to reach a fair contract.
“It tells me he means what he says when he’s pro-union and for the little guy,” said Edgar Litton, a surface repair technician at the Wayne, Mich., plant.
Holly Otterbein and Hannah Northey contributed to this report.
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