By Jeff Mason and Nandita Bose
BELLEVILLE, Michigan (Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Tuesday joined a picket line with striking autoworkers in Michigan, backing their call for a 40% pay raise and telling them they deserve a “lot more” than they are getting.
Biden’s appearance, the first visit by a U.S. president to striking workers in modern history, comes a day before Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner for president, will speak to auto workers in Michigan. The rare back-to-back events highlight the importance of union support in the 2024 presidential election, even though unions represent a tiny fraction of U.S. workers.
Democrat Biden traveled to a Belleville, Michigan, parts distribution center owned by General Motors, and joined dozens of picketers outside. “Companies were in trouble, now they’re doing incredibly well. And guess what? You should be doing incredibly well, too,” Biden said through a bullhorn. “Stick with it.”
He was referring to a 2009 government bailout of U.S. automakers that included wage cuts. “You deserve what you’ve earned. And you’ve earned a helluva lot more than what you’re getting paid now,” he said.
Asked if he supported the 40% increase the union had asked for, Biden said simply, “Yes.”
Flanked by Secret Service agents, Biden exchanged fist bumps and took selfies with the crowd after he spoke as the John Mellencamp song “Small Town” played in the background.
Trump will address hundreds of workers at a gathering at an auto supplier in a Detroit suburb on Wednesday. The supplier, Drake Enterprises, is a nonunion manufacturer, according to a spokesman at the AFL-CIO. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Republicans believe Biden’s push to electrify America’s vehicle fleet, by pumping billions of dollars of tax rebates into EV manufacturing, is unpopular with auto workers.
In a statement on Tuesday, Trump accused Biden of “stabbing” autoworkers in the back. Biden’s EV mandate, he said, will “annihilate” the U.S. auto industry and cost “thousands of autoworkers their jobs.”
UAW President Shawn Fain greeted Biden at the airport and handed the president a black UAW baseball cap. He also joined Biden at the picket line.
Calling Biden’s visit a “historic moment in time,” Fain accused CEOs of taking the profits and leaving workers to “fight for scraps.” “Thank you Mr. President for coming to stand up with us,” Fain said. “We know the president will do right by the working class.”
The UAW also encouraged non-UAW workers to join local picket lines in support of the “historic” presidential visit. The union is not involved with Trump’s visit and Fain does not plan to attend that event, a source added.
To date, the UAW has declined to support either 2024 presidential candidate, making it the only major union not to back Biden. Both candidates are expected to sharpen their 2024 campaign message in Michigan. When asked what it will take for the UAW to endorse Biden, the president said he is not worried about that.
“We are a long way from the general election, but it sure feels like the general election,” said Dave Urban, a Republican strategist who previously worked for Trump.
UAW workers this month began targeted strikes against GM, Ford and Chrysler parent Stellantis seeking wage rises to match CEO pay jumps, shorter work weeks and job security as the industry moves toward electric vehicles.
The White House is holding discussions about ways to blunt any economic fallout from a full walkout.
Both the Detroit Three and the UAW have a lot at stake in federal policy decisions.
Automakers are counting on Washington for billions in subsidies for electric-vehicle production and negotiating with the Biden administration over future emissions rules that require a shift to EVs that the industry believes would be too fast and too expensive. The union, meanwhile, is concerned that the transition to EVs will mean a loss of jobs as those vehicles require fewer parts in production.
Only 10.1% of U.S. workers were union members in 2022, but they have outsized political influence because the states where they are strong often swing from voting Democratic to Republican, and their grassroots networks are powerful influences on the working-class vote.
RUST BELT IN THE BALANCE?
The auto industry and its labor movement are deeply intertwined with politics and elections in Michigan and other midwestern U.S. states.
In 2016, Trump earned a level of support from union members that no Republican had reached since Ronald Reagan, helping him narrowly capture critical states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Biden rebounded with unions in 2020, with a roughly 16-percentage-point advantage as he reclaimed those so-called Rust Belt states, which have been scarred by decades of job losses as companies embraced lower-cost, often nonunion locations. He won Michigan in 2020 by some 154,000 votes.
In Michigan, Trump will criticize Biden’s economic policies and incentives promoting EVs and say he would do a better job of protecting blue-collar workers if elected to a second term, said Trump adviser Jason Miller.
Trump is banking on driving a wedge between union members and their leaders, who criticized the former president’s labor policies during his term, labor experts said.
Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist, said it was critical for Biden to make the trip to Michigan to ensure that Trump does not rewrite history.
“Biden is saying that we are not just going to let you go there and lie to people and try to change the conversation,” Finney said.
Biden’s Michigan visit represents the most support a sitting president has shown striking workers since Theodore Roosevelt invited striking coal workers to the White House in 1902, historians said.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason in Belleville, Michigan, and Nandita Bose in Washington, Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Heather Timmons, Nick Zieminski and Matthew Lewis)
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