Biden Visits UAW Picket Line in Michigan

In Historic Step, President Greets Striking Workers, Tells Them to ‘Stick With It’
Biden speaks to UAW strikers
President Joe Biden joins striking United Auto Workers on the picket line, in Van Buren Township, Mich. United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain stands at left. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

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VAN BUREN TOWNSHIP, Mich. — President Joe Biden joined United Auto Workers strikers on their picket line Sept. 26 as their work stoppage against major carmakers hit day 12, a demonstration of support for organized labor apparently unparalleled in presidential history.

“You deserve the significant raise you need,” Biden said through a bullhorn while wearing a union baseball cap after arriving at a General Motors parts distribution warehouse located in a suburb west of Detroit.

He walked along the picket line, exchanging fist bumps with grinning workers.

He encouraged them to continue fighting for better wages despite concerns that a prolonged strike could damage the economy, saying “stick with it.”

He said “yes” when asked if UAW members deserved a 40% raise, one of the demands that the union has made.

“No deal, no wheels!” workers chanted as Biden arrived. “No pay, no parts!”

He was joined by UAW President Shawn Fain, who rode with him in the presidential limousine to the picket line.

“Thank you, Mr. President, for coming to stand up with us in our generation-defining moment,” said Fain, who described the union as engaged in a “kind of war” against “corporate greed.”

“We do the heavy lifting. We do the real work,” Fain said. “Not the CEOs.”

Labor historians say they cannot recall an instance when a sitting president has joined an ongoing strike, even during the tenures of the more ardent pro-union presidents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Theodore Roosevelt invited labor leaders alongside mine operators to the White House amid a historic coal strike in 1902, a decision that was seen at the time as a rare embrace of unions as Roosevelt tried to resolve the dispute.

One industry group balked at the move by Biden. “President Biden has escalated this conflict. This is nothing but political theater," American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear said in a statement. “Rather than mediating a swift resolution, the president has chosen one party over the other. This affront to U.S. businesses is already killing supply chain jobs and upending livelihoods." Spear added, “He ran as a uniter but is now using the bully pulpit to stoke division.”

Biden arrived one day before former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, goes to Detroit to hold his own event in an attempt to woo auto workers, even though union leaders say he’s no ally.

Lawmakers often appear at strikes to show solidarity with unions, and Biden joined picket lines with casino workers in Las Vegas and auto workers in Kansas City while seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

But sitting presidents, who have to balance the rights of workers with disruptions to the economy, supply chains and other facets of everyday life, have long wanted to stay out of the strike fray.

Su, Sperling Meet With Reps

Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and senior White House adviser Gene Sperling were in Michigan Sept. 26 to speak with the UAW union and representatives from the Big Three legacy automakers, a move by the Biden administration to ramp up communication with the parties.

The two officials accompanied Biden on Air Force One to the Detroit area and remained behind in order to aid the negotiating process and are not intervening in the talks, according to a Labor Department official.

The president lacks legal means to intervene to force an end to the strike. Union officials and workers have expressed concern with politicians getting involved, and the White House has said it is committed to letting the collective bargaining process move forward.

— Bloomberg News

“This is absolutely unprecedented. No president has ever walked a picket line before,” said Erik Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and an expert on U.S. labor history. Presidents historically “avoided direct participation in strikes. They saw themselves more as mediators. They did not see it as their place to directly intervene in a strike or in labor action.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Michigan that “Biden is fighting to ensure that the cars of the future will be built in America by unionized American workers in good-paying jobs instead of being built in China.”

Biden’s trip to join a picket line is the most significant demonstration of his pro-union bona fides, a record that includes vocal support for unionization efforts at Inc. facilities and executive actions that promoted worker organizing. He also earned a joint endorsement of major unions earlier this year and has avoided Southern California for high-dollar fundraisers amid the writers’ and actors’ strikes in Hollywood.

During the ongoing UAW strike, Biden has argued that the auto companies have not gone far enough, although White House officials have repeatedly declined to say whether the president endorses specific UAW demands, such as full-time pay for a 32-hour work week.

“I think the UAW gave up an incredible amount back when the automobile industry was going under. They gave everything from their pensions on, and they saved the automobile industry,” Biden said Sept. 25 from the White House. He said workers should benefit from carmakers’ riches “now that the industry is roaring back.”

Biden and other Democrats are more aggressively touting the president’s pro-labor credentials at a time when Trump is trying to make inroads in critical swing states where unions remain influential, including Michigan and Pennsylvania. Biden is leaning on his union support at a time when labor enjoys broad support from the public, with 67% of Americans approving of labor unions in an August Gallup poll.

The United Farm Workers announced its endorsement of Biden on Sept. 26, calling him “an authentic champion for workers and their families, regardless of their race or national origin.” Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, is the granddaughter of Cesar Chavez, the union’s co-founder.

The UAW has not endorsed Biden. Asked about that after landing in Michigan, Biden told reporters that “I’m not worried about that.”

Carolyn Nippa, who was walking the picket line Sept. 25 at the GM parts warehouse in Van Buren Township, was ambivalent about the president’s advocacy for electric vehicles, even as she said Biden was a better president than Trump for workers. She said it was “great that we have a president who wants to support local unions and the working class.”

“I know it’s the future. It’s the future of the car industry,” Nippa said of electric vehicles. “I’m hoping it doesn’t affect our jobs.”

Still, other pickets remained more skeptical about Biden’s visit Sept. 26.


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Dave Ellis, who stocks parts at the distribution center, said he’s happy Biden wants to show people he’s behind the middle class. But he said the visit is just about getting more votes.

“I don’t necessarily believe that it’s really about us,” said Ellis, who argued that Trump would be a better president for the middle class than Biden because Trump is a businessman.

The Biden administration has no formal role in the negotiations, and the White House pulled back a decision from the president earlier this month to send two key deputies to Michigan after determining it would be more productive for the advisers, Gene Sperling and acting Labor Secretary Julie Su, to monitor talks from Washington.

By Seung Min Kim, Tom Krisher and Chris Megerian. Krisher reported from Van Buren Township, Mich. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Summerville, S.C., contributed to this report.

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