Biden urges striking auto workers to "stick with it" in picket line visit unparalleled in history
President Joe Biden grabbed a bullhorn on the picket line Tuesday and urged striking auto workers to “stick with it” in an unparalleled show of support for organized labor by a modern president.
Donning a union ballcap and exchanging fist bumps, Biden told United Auto Workers strikers that “you deserve the significant raise you need” as he stopped in the Detroit area just a day ahead of a planned visit by former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in next year's election.
“No deal, no wheels!” workers chanted as Biden arrived at a General Motors parts distribution warehouse, one of several facilities that has been targeted in a widening strike now in its 12th day. “No pay, no parts!”
Despite concerns that a prolonged strike could undermine the economy, particularly in the crucial battleground state of Michigan, the Democratic president encouraged workers to keep fighting for better wages at a time when car companies have seen rising profits.
Asked if UAW members deserved a 40% raise, one of their demands over the course of negotiations, Biden said “yes.”
The White House said Biden was the first modern president to visit a picket line, a sign of how far he’s willing to go to cultivate union support as he runs for reelection.
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 — until Biden.
Unimpressed, Trump called Biden’s visit “nothing more than a PR stunt from Crooked Joe Biden to distract and gaslight the American people from his disastrous Bidenomics policies that have led to so much economic misery across the country.”
The president spent less than half an hour at the Willow Run Redistribution Center, where he was joined by UAW President Shawn Fain, who rode with Biden 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," Fein said. "Not the CEOs.”
Labor historians said they could not recall an instance when a sitting president had joined an ongoing strike, even during the tenures of 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.
“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.”
Biden's visit to the picket line was the most significant demonstration of his pro-union bona fides, a record that includes vocal support for unionization efforts at Amazon.com 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.
The United Farm Workers announced their endorsement of Biden on Tuesday, 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.”
He's repeatedly argued that auto companies have not gone far enough to meet union demands, especially after making concessions in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
“The fact of the matter is that you guys, the UAW, you saved the automobile industry back in 2008 ... you made a lot of sacrifices. You gave up a lot. And the companies were in trouble. Now they’re doing incredibly well and guess what? You should be doing incredibly well.”
Biden and other Democrats are more aggressively touting the president's pro-labor credentials as Trump works 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.
Trump is skipping the second Republican primary debate on Wednesday and will meet with striking autoworkers in Michigan, seeking to capitalize on discontent over the state of the economy and anger over the Biden administration's push for more electric vehicles — a key component of its clean-energy agenda.
White House officials dismissed any notion that Trump forced their hand and noted that Biden headed to Michigan at the request of Fain, who last week invited the sitting president to join the strikers.
The UAW strike, which expanded into 20 states last week, remains a dilemma for the Biden administration since a part of the workers' grievances include concerns about a broader transition to electric vehicles. The shift away from gas-powered vehicles has worried some autoworkers because electric versions require fewer people to manufacture and there is no guarantee that factories that produce them will be unionized.
Carolyn Nippa, who was walking the picket line Monday at the same GM warehouse that Biden visited, 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 picketers remained more skeptical about Biden's visit.
Dave Ellis, who stocks parts at the distribution center, said he was happy Biden wants to show people he’s behind the middle class. But he said the visit was 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.