The self-declared “most pro-union president in American history,” Joe Biden is bracing for an auto workers strike at midnight Friday. And the brewing fear among Democrats is that it won’t just complicate his labor credentials, it could slow the implementation of his green industrial agenda and the broader economic growth around which he’s basing his case for reelection.
Inside the White House, a strike is now viewed as highly likely and Biden could eventually be forced to intervene more directly. And if workers come to perceive any intervention as something less than full-fledged support for their position, it could risk their backing in next year’s presidential contest. Any strike, one senior person in the labor world said, could create “significant complications” for the president politically.
Biden, who has stopped short of endorsing a strike, spoke Thursday with United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain and the three auto company CEOs to discuss the status of the high-stakes negotiations, the White House said.
As the deadline neared, several Democrats aligned with the White House have been increasingly outspoken in blaming the automakers, not union leaders, for any possible strike.
“It’s not that everybody’s equally at fault here,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “The auto companies have done this; the workers have been hurt. The media is focused on what kind of damage this is going to do to the economy? How about the damage it’s done to workers and families in Youngstown over the decades?”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who said he may travel Friday to Detroit to stand with striking auto workers, was one of several lawmakers who pointed to rising executive compensation levels as proof workers deserve to be paid more.
“Workers in the automobile industry are earning substantially less than they earned 15 years ago,” Sanders said. “In many cases their wages have not kept up with inflation, and CEOs are making $20-25 million. So it’s time the workers were treated with respect.”
Similarly, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he’s “concerned” about the economic implications but, like Sanders and others, thought the UAW’s position was “reasonable when you consider that the CEOs and executives at these automakers have made 40 percent more over the recent period of time and the workers have been increased 6 percent.”
Biden, who spoke about the economy Thursday afternoon in Maryland, framed his working-class appeal in contrast to Republican proposals. But he avoided the subject of the high-stakes negotiations entirely.
In the immediate term, the administration has been in touch with agencies about contingency plans and monitoring the potential impact of any strike on supply chains, and the economy as a whole, according to people familiar with recent meetings and discussions. At the same time, administration officials have engaged in direct talks with principals on both sides.
But discussions, so far, have not been entirely fruitful. And there is a sense inside the administration that no form of intervention would work at this late hour.
The administration sees Fain, who Biden met with in the Oval Office earlier this summer, as a less establishment-oriented labor leader. Fain didn’t have particularly close ties to the White House and built his very brand on being aggressive and combative. Fain, in their esteem, was not someone looking for an off ramp, nor had he come to power as a user of them.
But Fain wasn’t seen as the only wild card in the current round of negotiations. The White House has also been leaning on a team with strong bonafides on labor policy and economics — including chief adviser Gene Sperling and acting Labor Secretary Julie Su. But they have been missing the person who helped navigate the last few high-profile standoffs: former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
Whether Walsh would have been able to pull a rabbit out of the hat is impossible to know. But by Thursday afternoon, aides were being extremely delicate with how they talked about the pending strike: cognizant not just that it would have economic consequences but that it could alter perceptions of the president as a champion of organized labor.
They also feared that Biden might end up even more hampered after the strike began than before. The expectation was that other unions would come out in solidarity with the UAW once a strike were to commence, which would only add to the pressure on Biden.
If a strike now looks all but inevitable, the White House is working to keep it from becoming a drawn out, economically painful one, trying to coax both sides into recognizing the benefits of reaching a deal as quickly as possible. Biden, who called Fain on Labor Day and spoke to the big three auto CEOs prior to his trip last week to India and Vietnam, has been encouraging both sides to remain at the table, Council of Economic Advisers chair Jared Bernstein said Wednesday.
“And he will continue to press on that,” Bernstein said.
Adam Cancryn, Jennifer Haberkorn and Sam Stein contributed to this report.
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