‘Stick With It’: Biden Backs UAW Pay Demands on Picket Line

President Joe Biden endorsed the United Auto Workers’ demand for a major wage increase during a visit to a picket line at a General Motors Co. plant in suburban Detroit — a historic show of solidarity with organized labor.

(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden endorsed the United Auto Workers’ demand for a major wage increase during a visit to a picket line at a General Motors Co. plant in suburban Detroit — a historic show of solidarity with organized labor.

“Stick with it,” Biden said through a bullhorn Tuesday in Belleville, Michigan, encouraging autoworkers striking against GM, Ford Motor Co., and Stellantis NV. “You deserve what you earned, and you earned a hell of a lot more than what you’re getting paid now.”

The strike, now on its 12th day, centers on benefits, representation and the president’s own clean-energy push. Biden, joined by UAW President Shawn Fain, donned a black union cap and shook hands with workers on the picket line. 

Biden said autoworkers had “made a lot of sacrifices” and urged them to keep fighting for better pay despite concerns a prolonged strike could harm the economy in a politically important region. “Yes, I think they should be able to bargain for that,” the president said, when asked if he agreed UAW members should receive a 40% wage increase. 

The union has reduced its demands in negotiations for pay raises to 36%.

Workers wearing red UAW shirts and carrying signs chanted “no deals, no wheels” and “no pay, no parts” as Biden arrived.

“Thank you, Mr. President, for coming to stand up with us in our generation’s defining moment,” said Fain, who rode with Biden in the presidential motorcade to the picket line. 

The visit comes a day before former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination, also heads to Michigan. The dueling events highlight how the strike and battle for union support have become a 2024 flashpoint. 

Both candidates are aggressively courting union rank-and-file, who make up a sizable portion of middle-class voters in key swing states, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump won Michigan in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, but Biden carried the state in 2020 by about 154,000 votes, thanks in part to 62% of the vote from those in a union household.

An August Gallup poll showed 75% of US adults say they side with the UAW, 19% with the auto companies. Overall, organized labor enjoys strong support, with 67% approving of unions, down from 71% a year ago but up from an all-time low of 48% in 2009. 

Biden, who has billed himself as the most pro-union president in US history, is the first modern president to personally join an active strike, according to the White House and labor experts. 

“It’s good to know that we are heard and cared about by someone as high as an authority as him,” said Arkilah Taylor, 41, an employee at the Dundee Engine Plant who was on the picket line with Biden.

Still, the strike has put Biden in a political bind. The president has faced skepticism over his electric-vehicle push, as UAW leaders and workers worry it will cost them jobs, reduce wages and favor non-unionized companies. But Biden needs the legacy automakers to achieve the transition.

Two top administration officials  — acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and senior White House adviser Gene Sperling accompanied Biden to in Michigan and remained behind to aid the negotiating process. They are not intervening in the talks, according to a Labor Department official. 

Read more: Senior Biden Officials Stay in Michigan for Auto, Union Talks

Trump is slated to meet current and former autoworkers at a suburban Detroit auto-parts manufacturer Wednesday, the same day his rivals for the nomination take the stage at the second Republican presidential debate. 

The facility Trump is expected to visit is a non-union shop and UAW officials criticized his choice of venue, saying it shows a lack of solidarity with striking workers.

“He’s just trying to pander to people and say what they want to hear,” Fain said of Trump.

Trump has hammered the president for his support of electric vehicles, claiming the transition will send UAW jobs to China.

The former president will argue Biden has been on the wrong side of issues hurting workers and the middle class for three decades, dating back to support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, Trump adviser Jason Miller said.

Democrats say Trump hurt workers by prioritizing tax breaks for corporations, appointing anti-union officials to the National Labor Relations Board and failing to protect union jobs and assembly plants.

Fain invited Biden to Detroit to turn up pressure on automakers, with the two sides at loggerheads on key issues. While there has been tension between the White House and the UAW, the union leader greeted Biden warmly and lauded his decision to show up at the picket line.

“Our president has chosen to stand up with workers in our fight for economic and social justice,” Fain said.

The economic losses from the walkout are already estimated at $1.6 billion, and a prolonged work stoppage threatens to tip states such as Michigan crucial to Biden’s reelection into recession.

The union last week expanded its strike against GM and Stellantis, which makes the Jeep and Chrysler brands, to 38 more facilities in 20 states. The UAW has spared Ford from additional walkouts after the the union said it obtained concessions. 

Negotiations continue to be the most active with Ford, while conversations are ongoing with the other two companies, according to a UAW official. The union has not ruled out widening the strike if its demands are not met.  

Lacking legal means to intervene, the Biden administration’s response at times has been halting. Trump announced his Michigan visit days before Biden, and the White House was forced to scrap a planned trip by Su and Sperling to Detroit to liaise with the parties after Biden announced it in a Sept. 15 speech. 

Prominent labor groups have endorsed Biden’s reelection, but the UAW has held back, despite endorsing him in 2020. Fain had pushed Biden and Democrats to do more to back workers in their fight for higher wages. But some in the White House believe Fain was ungrateful for the president’s previous gestures to help the union, according to people familiar with the matter. 

Union leaders, though, have dismissed the possibility of endorsing Trump. Fain did not discuss an endorsement with Biden on Tuesday and instead focused on the contract talks, according to a UAW official.  

“I’m not worried about that,” Biden told reporters when asked about an endorsement.

–With assistance from Mark Niquette and Gabrielle Coppola.

(Updates with additional details, starting in fourth paragraph)

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.