In an unprecedented show of solidarity with organised labour, President Joe Biden will join the picket line of striking members of the United Auto Workers union outside of a production facility in Michigan on Tuesday.
The Washington Post first reported the visit, and HuffPost independently confirmed it with a source familiar with his plans.
“It’s time for a win-win agreement that keeps American auto manufacturing thriving with well-paid UAW jobs,” Biden said in a post announcing the visit on the social media app X later on Friday.
Biden’s announcement follows UAW President Shawn Fain’s remarks on Friday welcoming the president to stand with the union members at a picket line.
Biden already announced his support for the UAW’s strike against the “Big Three” U.S. automakers: General Motors, Ford and Jeep parent company Stellantis.
Biden is the first known sitting president to walk a picket line with striking workers.
It is also timed to undercut former President Donald Trump. The Republican front-runner is due to hold a rally with autoworkers and other union members in Detroit this Wednesday in lieu of attending the second GOP presidential debate.
Trump has tried to claim that by reversing Biden’s subsidies for renewable energy, he would be a better president for UAW’s rank-and-file members. He argues that Fain, who has not endorsed Biden but has forsworn a second Trump term, is not representing his membership well.
Trump, whose labour policy appointees were hostile to unions, has nonetheless declined to take a side in the UAW’s strike against the Big Three U.S. automakers. “I’m on the side of making our country great,” he told NBC News in an interview that came out last Sunday.
The UAW’s unprecedented, simultaneous strike against all three car companies ― General Motors, Ford and Stellantis ― expanded Friday as Fain announced that the union was dissatisfied with the progress it had made in talks with GM and Stellantis. The UAW is calling for, among other things, major increases in pay to reflect the companies’ record profits.
“By Biden going there before Trump, he would be sending a message that he supports workers,” Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic strategist with close ties to organised labour, told HuffPost on Thursday. “From a strategic perspective, Trump would be forced to respond to him.”
Mikus was one of many Democrats who called for Biden to visit the striking workers ― and in some cases, fretted about the consequences if he did not show up.
“It makes no sense to allow Trump to go uncontested,” Mikus said.
Democrat Representative Ro Khanna, one of several Democratic lawmakers who visited a UAW picket line, encouraged Biden to make the trip as well.
“Working-class voters have been shafted for the past 40 years. They’ve seen wealth concentrate in districts like mine,” said Khanna, whose Silicon Valley district houses the headquarters of tech giants including LinkedIn and Apple. “They want to see people actually fighting to change the economy and structure that’s not working and have real solutions for them. The first step to that is to show up and empathize and listen.”
Democrat Representative Marcy Kaptur, who represents striking autoworkers at Toledo’s Stellaris plant, stopped short of advising Biden on how best to proceed but suggested it wouldn’t be a bad thing for him to visit the picket lines.
“He’d be very welcome,” she said, noting the critical role Biden played in the Obama administration’s auto industry bailout during the Great Recession. “Joe Biden really moved that White House to pay attention to the automotive industry.”
Biden’s visit to Michigan is in keeping with a pro-labour approach that he claims has made him the “most pro-union president in American history.” In addition to Biden’s historically pro-union appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, he boasts a legislative agenda that has won him the praise and early endorsements of major labor unions.
Biden’s COVID-19 economic relief bill helped public-sector union workers stay employed; his infrastructure bill won plaudits from building trades unions; and the CHIPS Act, advancing semiconductor work, is set to boost union employment in the nascent, domestic microchip production industry.
But Trump’s penchant for wooing labour with theatrical gestures has once again given Democrats anxiety about the electoral effect of his lasting appeal with blue-collar workers, especially in the Great Lakes region. Eating into Democrats’ edge with blue-collar union members there helped Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016 — and the trauma from that loss is still fresh in many Democrats’ minds.
During that election, Trump’s intervention in a high-profile labour fight at a Carrier furnace plant in Indianapolis helped burnish his reputation as a crusader against the offshoring of manufacturing jobs. Carrier was planning to send the facility’s jobs to Mexico, and Trump promised to prevent the flight of the factory’s jobs.
Trump only partially delivered — and he feuded with Chuck Jones, who was then president of the workers’ union, United Steelworkers Local 1999, in the process.
But the incident highlighted Trump’s ability to capitalize on blue-collar unions’ longstanding frustration with corporate-friendly free-trade deals and the offshoring that they enable. And Jones, now retired, warned Biden not to dismiss the significance of Trump’s visit to Detroit.
“He can’t afford to have Trump come in and steal the limelight as a person who is going to try to get the labour vote,” Jones told HuffPost earlier this week.
Now, rather than outflanking Democrats on trade policy, Trump is hoping to capitalise on workers’ anxiety over the transition to manufacturing electric vehicles (EVs), a process that the renewable energy subsidies in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act are due to dramatically accelerate.
To ramp up their production of EVs, the Big Three have established joint ventures with non-union foreign companies with whom they are building many production facilities in the anti-union South. Though those ventures are not subject to the national “master” contract over which the UAW is currently bargaining with management, their growth is an unspoken driver of the tension between auto industry management and the UAW.
Concerns about the EV transition have also prompted the UAW to refrain from joining numerous other unions in endorsing Biden’s re-election. And the union bristled at the White House’s announcement last week that it would send two officials to serve as emissaries to broker a resolution to the strike, prompting the White House to withdraw its proposal.
Sean Crawford, a rank-and-file UAW member and self-described progressive who works as a model-making apprentice at the GM technical center in Warren, Michigan, welcomed Biden’s visit.
“I feel like all of our politicians should be out there,” he said.
But a visit alone won’t allay Crawford’s concerns about the quality of jobs in the emerging EV industry.
Without higher labour standards for the EV joint ventures, Crawford said, “it makes the next generation of autoworkers subject to a gradually decreasing standard of living.”