Auto strike poses key test for pro-labor Biden

The United Auto Workers (UAW) strike could have major political implications for President Biden, who has repeatedly framed himself as the most pro-labor president in history.

Biden, who is running for reelection with a dismal approval rating, has worked to secure political support from blue-collar workers. But his pro-union bona fides and claims of U.S. manufacturing success are at stake with the strike, which his administration tried and failed to prevent. 

It was a blow to Biden when a deal wasn’t made after months of negotiations between the UAW and Ford, Stellantis and General Motors. Much of the economic gains during his presidency, for which he has already struggled to get credit, could be threatened.

Negotiations have been focused on pay increases, pensions, career security and workers concerns over electric vehicles (EVs). Biden, an unapologetic “car guy,” leaned into his support for the autoworkers Friday, saying that record corporate profits “should be shared by record contracts for the UAW.”

Biden said he is dispatching acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and Director of the National Economic Council Gene Sterling to Detroit to talk to both sides. But looming over such moves is the fact that the UAW has not yet endorsed Biden for 2024, despite most major unions announcing their backing of him months ago.

The UAW said, however, that it wouldn’t endorse former President Trump, and union President Shawn Fain went so far earlier this month as to say that Trump is “not a person I want as my president.”

Democrats lost many union workers in 2020 in states such as Ohio to Trump, whose anti-free trade message and other rhetoric resonated with the labor vote. That came after union households had already somewhat shifted blue-to-red in 2016.

“Why did Democrats lose the Midwest? Why did the blue wall crumble? It’s because they allowed good union jobs in the auto industry to be offshore,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution. “This strike is an opportunity for the president to … say to the Big Three, ‘You’re incredibly profitable, we’re going to invest in you, but the return in investment we need to see is for working class Americans.’”

“Failure to do so, I think, will mean he risks losing working class voters. They either sit it out or they vote for a Donald Trump-like figure who won his election by promising to champion the deindustrialized Midwest,” Geevarghese added.

Biden’s campaign has an enthusiasm problem, with voters often citing his age as a major issue and his approval rating lingering just below 40 percent. The lack of excitement from some progressives such as college students and climate activists threatens a low voter turnout but not necessarily a vote for Trump or some other GOP nominee.

Union workers, however, could be a group that votes for a Republican, something that already occurred in 2016, instead of just not showing up for Biden. 

When asked about pressure on Biden considering that Michigan, which he won in 2020, is an essential state in 2024 and workers are an essential demographic to win, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “there are always unique sets of circumstances when we’re talking about collective bargaining with unions.”

Biden has made a major push for a transition toward electric vehicles (EVs), and when the UAW said it would withhold its endorsement for Biden, it cited concerns over the White House’s focus on EVs.

Trump urged the UAW Wednesday to make repealing Biden’s push for EVs its “top, non-negotiable demand in any strike,” warning that if the policy stands, “all your jobs will be sent to China” because “there’s no such thing as a ‘fair transition.’”

Biden’s reelection campaign in response argued Trump will say anything to distract from his own record and said that Trump suggested in 2015 moving some car production from Michigan.

“Under Trump, autoworkers shuttered their doors and sent American jobs overseas. Under Trump, auto companies would have likely gone bankrupt, devastating the industry and upending millions of lives,” said Ammar Moussa, a Biden-Harris spokesperson.

When asked Friday if the strike is a result of the president’s push toward the EV transition, Jean-Pierre said, “No, we don’t believe that to be.” She added that EV sales are hitting record highs and prices for the vehicles are coming down.

While the White House has maintained it won’t intervene in the negotiations, Sterling and Su are being deployed as coordinators between the two sides.

But Biden’s Friday comments came across as a firm endorsement of the workers.

He said UAW members have “extraordinary skill and sacrifices” and that the UAW is “at the heart of our economy.”

“This is a question of whether cars are going to be made here at home or in China and overseas. Joe Biden is not going to turn his back on American manufacturing. He’s been clear he’s supporting workers during this process,” a Biden adviser told The Hill.

Michael Starr Hopkins, a Democratic strategist, argued that Biden personally fights for working Americans and his vision has always been to support not just the wealthy.

“The name Biden is synonymous with working Americans. That’s why Americans overwhelmingly believe that Joe Biden wakes up every day fighting for their futures. The president knows what it’s like to live in a home that’s paycheck to paycheck. It’s personal to him,” Hopkins said.

Biden maintains strong support from other labor groups, and his reelection was endorsed in June by AFL-CIO head Liz Shuler, AFCME President Lee Saunders and others.

Unions cite his gains for workers, including investments in infrastructure, manufacturing and clean energy jobs through legislation including the Inflation Reduction Act, CHIPs and Science Act and the Infrastructure Law.

On Friday, Jean-Pierre stopped short of saying Biden supports the UAW’s demand for a 40 percent wage increase, and she wouldn’t confirm any upcoming conversations between Biden and Fain.

“This is a which side are you on moment going into a presidential election season. Is he really on the side of workers? If so, he should stand with the UAW and put pressure on the Big Three,” Geevarghese said.

On the other side, the business community is taking note that the president appears to be leaning away from support for the auto giants during this strike.

“The UAW strike and indeed the ‘summer of strikes’ is the natural result of the Biden administration’s ‘whole of government’ approach to promoting unionization at all costs,” Chamber of Commerce President Suzanne Clark said in a statement.

Hollywood writers and actors have been striking for weeks over fair pay and benefits, and major strikes were only barely averted for UPS staffers and West Coast dockworkers.

The Teamsters, ahead of its deal with UPS, had asked the White House not to intervene if workers strike.

The administration did intervene last fall to avoid a nationwide railroad strike. Biden called into talks between negotiators, led by former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, and made clear a shutdown of railways was unacceptable. Then, following 20 hours of negotiations, a deal appeared to avoid a strike that could have devastated the U.S. supply chain. At the time, the president hailed the tentative agreement to avoid a nationwide railroad strike as proof that unions and management can work together.

Months later, Biden chose to make remarks in front of a room full of union workers for his first speech since announcing his reelection bid in April.

“I make no apologies for being the most pro-union president. And I’m proud of it,” Biden said at a North America’s Building Trades Unions conference. “We — you and I together — we’re turning things around and we’re doing it in a big way.”

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