President Biden joined members of the United Auto Workers union on the picket line Tuesday in an unprecedented show of support for workers striking against Detroit’s Big Three automakers.
Mr. Biden’s appearance at a General Motors plant in suburban Detroit marked the first time a sitting president has ever walked a picket line in an ongoing strike in solidarity with workers. It is the most significant pro-union action ever taken by a president and also distinguishes Mr. Biden as a fierce opponent of automakers.
In his remarks to striking workers, Mr. Biden condemned the automakers, saying they haven’t gone far enough for their employees. The president accused the companies of hoarding record profits that he says should be shared with union members.
Mr. Biden’s visit came one day before former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, will visit Detroit to address striking workers.
Appearing alongside UAW President Shawn Fain at the GM plant in Wayne, Michigan, Mr. Biden called on automakers to share profits with workers.
“You guys — UAW — you saved the automobile industry back in 2008 and before. You made a lot of sacrifices, gave up a lot, when the companies were in trouble. But now they are doing incredibly well and guess what — you should be doing incredibly well too,” Mr. Biden said to cheers from the crowd. “You deserve a significant raise and other benefits. Let’s get back what we lost.”
Mr. Biden also raised his arm in agreement when Mr. Fain blamed “corporate greed” for why striking workers’ demands haven’t been met.
“I see these CEOs trying to justify a system where they take all the profit and the workers are left to fight for the scraps and live paycheck-to-paycheck, that has got to end,” Mr. Fain said, adding that “our president has chosen to stand up for economic and social justice.”
“These CEOs sitting in their office, they make the decisions, but we make the product,” he said.
The president concluded his remarks by telling the workers, “You deserve what you earn and deserve a hell of a lot more than you are getting paid now.”
Striking auto workers reacted to his remarks with thunderous applause and pro-Biden chants.
Mr. Biden spoke in general about the union’s demands, but did not say whether he backs specific UAW proposals, including a roughly 40% increase in wages and full-time pay for a 32-hour work week.
Still, by walking the picket line, Mr. Biden showed unabashed support for striking workers even if he’s not explicitly endorsing their demands. That support could backfire on Mr. Biden politically if the strike doesn’t end any time soon.
If the strike drags on and damages the economy, voters will likely take out their frustrations on Mr. Biden. The move also backs him into a corner as the strike ripples through the economy.
No U.S. president in history has ever walked a picket line, even has other presidents have signaled extraordinary support for unions. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dispatched his labor secretary to work with strikers, while President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 hosted striking coal miners and mining executives at the White House in an attempt to negotiate a deal.
The Biden administration does not have the legal or legislative authority to insert itself into the negotiations. But senior presidential aides have met with top officials, including UAW leadership, to discuss policies that would benefit unions even as the union criticized Mr. Biden’s push to ramp up electric vehicle manufacturing.
Mr. Biden’s march along the picket line doubles down on his self-proclaimed boast that he’s the most union-friendly president in history and also seeks to reclaim his endorsement from the UAW, which has yet to back his bid for re-election.
“I’m not worried about that,” Mr. Biden told reporters Tuesday when asked about the UAW withholding the endorsement.
Union members walked off the job at plants owned by the Big Three automakers — General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis — on Sept. 15. On Friday, the strike expanded with members striking at 38 parts distribution centers across 20 states targeting Stellantis and General Motors.
Stellantis is an Italian–American conglomerate that owns Fiat, Chrysler, Dodge, RAM, Jeep, Peugeot, Citroen and Alfa Romeo.
Mr. Fain‘s union wants wage increases of 36% over four years, a 32-hour workweek with overtime for additional hours, restoration of retiree health benefits, profit sharing, the restoration of defined-benefit pensions for all workers and cost of living adjustments. He says workers deserve a bigger share of automakers’ record profits.
The three carmakers have raised their wage offers to a range of 17.5% to 20%, along with large one-time payments and more time off. But they’ve bristled at a 32-hour workweek and restoration of retirement benefits for new workers, which was cut when the automakers neared insolvency in 2007, saying it would make them less competitive with nonunion companies.
All told, roughly 18,300 UAW members, a fraction of the union’s 150,000 workers, are on strike. The strikes against the distribution centers could be particularly impactful to the automakers because they provide parts that dealerships use to make repairs. That’s the most profitable part of their business.
Eagle Industries Inc., an auto parts manufacturer, announced it would have to lay off a portion of its workers as a result of the strike.
While the three automakers issued statements on Mr. Biden’s visit, none criticized his support for the union or decision to join the picket line.
“Our focus is not on politics, but continues to be on bargaining in good faith with the UAW leadership to reach an agreement as quickly as possible that rewards our workforce and allows GM to succeed and thrive into the future,” General Motors said.
“President Biden said UAW workers ‘deserve a contract that sustains them and the middle class.’ We agree and presented a record offer,” Stellantis said, adding that it needs to balance rewarding workers while being able to compete against non-union competitors.
Ford simply said it intends to solve the strike “by finding creative solutions to tough issues together at the bargaining table.”
Asked if Mr. Biden had spoken recently with the three auto companies, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said she had no calls to read out to reporters.
Armed with his own pitch to striking workers, Mr. Trump will seek to peel off some union support from Mr. Biden in the crucial swing state of Michigan. In 2016, Mr. Trump won Michigan with the support of union members, but lost the state four years later to Mr. Biden.
Mr. Trump will not join a picket line and, instead, will give remarks, at a non-union auto parts store.
He blasted Mr. Biden’s “draconian and indefensible Electric Vehicle mandate” saying it will cost “countless thousands of autoworkers their jobs.’
“The only thing Biden could say today that would help the striking autoworkers is to announce the immediate termination of his ridiculous mandate,” Mr. Trump said. “Anything else is just a feeble and insulting attempt to distract American labor from this vicious Biden betrayal.”
Democrats and Mr. Fain blasted Mr. Trump’s decision to travel to Michigan.
“What’s his name, former President Trump, gave unions the ‘con.’ President Biden gave them the pension relief that they had been waiting for,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, on a conference call with reporters.
In April, the Biden administration proposed a rule that would require automakers to limit the amount of greenhouse gases that their vehicles emit. Although auto companies are not required to shift their fleets to electric vehicles, it would be the most efficient way to comply with the mandate.
The UAW said it supports the EV transition, but also criticized the Biden administration for giving federal funds to automakers who have moved jobs to states where unions are weaker and paying workers in battery plants less than their counterparts in combustion-engine factories.