VAN BUREN TOWNSHIP, Mich. — President Joe Biden joined United Auto Workers strikers on a picket line Tuesday as their work stoppage against major carmakers hit day 12, a demonstration of support for organized labor apparently unparalleled in presidential history.
“Stick with it,” he told them, exchanging fist bumps with grinning picketers as he walked along the line. “You deserve the significant raise you need,” Biden said through a bullhorn while wearing a union baseball cap after arriving at a General Motors parts distribution warehouse west of Detroit.
He encouraged them to continue fighting for better wages despite concerns that a prolonged strike could slow the economy. He said “yes” when asked if UAW members deserved a 40% raise, one of the demands that the union has made.
“No deal, no wheels!” workers chanted as Biden arrived. “No pay, no parts!”
He was joined by UAW President Shawn Fain, who rode with him in the presidential limousine to the picket line.
“Thank you, Mr. President, for coming to stand up with us in our generation-defining moment,” said Fain, who described the union as engaged in a “kind of war” against “corporate greed.”
“We do the heavy lifting. We do the real work,” Fein said. “Not the CEOs.”
Labor historians say they cannot recall an instance when a sitting president has joined an ongoing strike, even during the tenures of the more ardent pro-union presidents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Theodore Roosevelt invited labor leaders alongside mine operators to the White House amid a historic coal strike in 1902, a decision that was seen at the time as a rare embrace of unions as Roosevelt tried to resolve the dispute.
Biden arrived one day before former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, goes to Detroit to hold his own event in an attempt to woo auto workers even though union leaders say he’s no ally.
Lawmakers often appear at strikes to show solidarity with unions, and Biden joined picket lines with casino workers in Las Vegas and auto workers in Kansas City while seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
But sitting presidents, who have to balance the rights of workers with disruptions to the economy, supply chains and other facets of everyday life, have long wanted to stay out of the strike fray — until Biden.
“This is absolutely unprecedented. No president has ever walked a picket line before,” said Erik Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and an expert on U.S. labor history. Presidents historically “avoided direct participation in strikes. They saw themselves more as mediators. They did not see it as their place to directly intervene in a strike or in labor action.”
During the ongoing UAW strike, Biden has argued that the auto companies have not gone far enough, although White House officials have repeatedly declined to say whether the president endorses specific UAW demands such as a 40% hike in wages and full-time pay for a 32-hour work week.
“I think the UAW gave up an incredible amount back when the automobile industry was going under. They gave everything from their pensions on, and they saved the automobile industry,” Biden said Monday from the White House. He said workers should benefit from carmakers’ riches “now that the industry is roaring back.”
Biden and other Democrats are more aggressively touting the president’s pro-labor credentials at a time when Trump is trying to make inroads in critical swing states where unions remain influential, including Michigan and Pennsylvania. Biden is leaning on his union support at a time when labor enjoys broad support from the public, with 67% of Americans approving of labor unions in an August Gallup poll.
The United Farm Workers announced their endorsement of Biden on Tuesday, calling him “an authentic champion for workers and their families, regardless of their race or national origin.” Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, is the granddaughter of Cesar Chavez, the union’s co-founder.
The UAW has not endorsed Biden. Asked about that after landing in Michigan, Biden told reporters that “I’m not worried about that.”
Trump is skipping the second Republican primary debate on Wednesday and will meet with striking autoworkers in Michigan.
White House officials dismissed the notion that Trump forced their hand and noted that Biden was headed to Michigan at the request of UAW President Shawn Fain, who last week invited the sitting president to join the strikers.
Yet the UAW strike, which expanded into 20 states last week, remains a dilemma for the Biden administration since a part of the workers’ grievances include concerns about a broader transition to electric vehicles. The shift away from gas-powered vehicles has worried some autoworkers because electric versions require fewer people to manufacture and there is no guarantee that factories that produce them will be unionized.
Carolyn Nippa, who was walking the picket line Monday at the GM parts warehouse in Van Buren Township, Michigan, was ambivalent about the president’s advocacy for electric vehicles, even as she said Biden was a better president than Trump for workers. She said it was “great that we have a president who wants to support local unions and the working class.”
Still, other pickets remained more skeptical about Biden’s visit Tuesday.
Dave Ellis, who stocks parts at the distribution center, said he’s happy Biden wants to show people he’s behind the middle class. But he said the visit is just about getting more votes.
“I don’t necessarily believe that it’s really about us,” said Ellis, who argued that Trump would be a better president for the middle class than Biden because Trump is a businessman.