WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden made history Tuesday when he visited a picket line in Michigan in a show of loyalty to autoworkers who are striking for higher wages and cost-of-living increases.
Biden, who is looking to polish his pro-labor persona, is the first sitting president to appear on a picket line.
Speaking through a bullhorn, he told the striking autoworkers in Wayne County, "You deserve what you earned, and you've earned a hell of a lot more than you're getting paid now."
A reporter asked Biden whether he endorsed the union’s demand for a 40% wage increase over four years; union workers standing near him said yes, and he responded the same way, according to a media pool report. The answer seemed a departure from the White House’s position that it would stay out of the negotiations and leave the specifics to the union and management.
Later in the day, the White House released a transcript quoting Biden as saying, “Yes, I think they should be able to bargain for that.” The statement is more aligned with the White House’s past position on the negotiations.
Simply by showing up, Biden set a precedent for American presidents about how to respond to future strikes. Union officials and their congressional allies may now expect a president who purports to be pro-labor to join them on picket lines, invoking Biden as an example.
“It is, indeed, a historic move on Biden’s part to walk a picket line — especially in as high-profile a strike that is captivating both the economy and broader public attention,” said Tejasvi Nagaraja, an assistant professor of history at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School.
The United Auto Workers strike against the Big Three auto companies — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler maker Stellantis — has entered its 11th day. In traveling to Wayne County at the invitation of union President Shawn Fain, Biden positioned himself squarely on the side of striking workers after the White House spent weeks quietly seeing whether it could play a more neutral role in mediating the dispute.
Biden’s appearance also reflected the political reality of the moment. As he runs for a second term, he needs to win Rust Belt states like Michigan and can ill afford to alienate workers and their families by aligning himself with well-paid corporate executives. Biden’s likely opponent in the 2024 general election seems to have made a similar calculation: Donald Trump is due to address UAW workers in Michigan on Wednesday.
Earlier in the dispute, it wasn’t at all clear that Biden would visit the picket line. He considered sending a pair of senior administration officials to Michigan to help resolve the impasse but pulled back when Fain made it clear he didn’t want them to be part of the negotiations.
“I know he’s busy and he has a schedule, but I do believe that because this is very huge and how it can affect the economy that he should have been more involved, should maybe have been here by now,” said UAW worker Tameka Ellis, who has worked at a Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan, for 11 years.
Presidents often like to preserve space for themselves in such standoffs so both sides will consider them fair brokers. Biden also worried about intervening too directly in a strike whose economic cost has already exceeded $1.6 billion.
“For him to be going on a picket line is outrageous,” Steven Rattner, who headed President Barack Obama’s auto industry task force, said in an interview. “There’s no precedent for it. The tradition of the president is to stay neutral in these things. I get the politics. The progressives all said, ‘We don’t want a mediator; we want an advocate.’ And he bowed to the progressives, and now he’s going out there to put his thumb on the scale. And it’s wrong.”
The more involved Biden gets, the greater the risk that he’ll wind up owning the outcome, for better or worse, people familiar with the White House’s thinking on the issue said. What’s more, he didn’t have much of a personal relationship with Fain, a progressive who doesn’t fit the mold of traditional labor bosses more familiar to Biden over his long career in politics. Fain was among those who greeted Biden on the tarmac Tuesday when Air Force One landed in Romulus, Michigan.
“For a while, the president had expressed a desire and hope that they could reach a deal,” said Faiz Shakir, an adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who also supports the UAW in the strike. “Obviously, they were not able to do that. So now there’s a choice about whose side are you on. When workers go on strike, it’s a clarifying moment. You have to pick a side. And the president, in an act of courage, stood with the workers on this.”
The last Democratic president, Obama, never appeared on a picket line, though as a candidate he said he was willing to. In a campaign appearance in 2007, Obama told Iowa state workers that he was prepared to walk a picket line as he bashed then-President George W. Bush’s administration as “anti-union” and “anti-worker.”
The relationship with unions like the UAW, though, always carried complexities.
In his 2010 book about the Obama-Biden administration’s effort to rescue the auto industry, Rattner wrote about a meeting in then-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s office in which officials discussed whether to salvage General Motors and Chrysler.
Illustrating the competing considerations at play, one official mentioned polling that showed that people disliked government bailouts. Another mentioned the tens of thousands of autoworker jobs that would be lost if the companies collapsed.
“F--- the UAW,” Emanuel said, according to Rattner’s account in the book, “Overhaul.” (The Obama administration, in which Biden was vice president, restructured the auto industry with concessions made by the UAW. Emanuel is now the U.S. ambassador to Japan.)
Though he describes himself as the country’s most pro-union president, Biden has struck more of a middle ground in high-profile labor disputes. In December, he angered some rail workers by signing a bill to avert a strike that gave them a pay raise but denied them the paid sick leave they had wanted.
“Biden’s visit is a symbolic win for the striking workers and organized labor more generally,” said Tobias Higbie, a labor historian at UCLA. “Last year Biden pushed a settlement in the pending rail strike that was seen as going against workers’ demands. The logic of that action suggested that Biden saw a tension between workers’ interests and the health of the wider economy, which is pretty much the employers’ message. This is a different approach.”
With his trip to Michigan, Biden appears to have made amends for having disappointed the rail workers. Fain, using the same bullhorn, said: "Today I want to just take a moment to stand with all of you, with our president, and say thank you to the president. Thank you, Mr. President, for coming.
"Thank you for coming to stand up with us in our generation’s defining moment. And we know the president will do right by the working class."
The crowd cheered.
For Biden, there seems to be no turning back now that he has championed the autoworkers’ cause. "You guys, the UAW, you saved the automobile industry back in 2008," he said. "Made a lot of sacrifices. Gave up a lot [when] the companies were in trouble. Now, they're doing incredibly well. And guess what? You should be doing incredibly well, too."