Biden Walks Picket Line with UAW

In a historic appearance, the first by an incumbent U.S. president on any union’s picket line, Joe Biden told members of the United Auto Workers “it’s time to get back what we lost” in winning wage and benefit hikes from Ford, GM and Stellantis/FiatChrysler.

Sporting a black UAW baseball cap and blue windbreaker, the Democratic president joined red-shirt-clad members of UAW Local 174 outside Ford’s historic Willow Run Ford assembly plant near Detroit for around 15 minutes on Sept. 26. 

“You guys, the UAW, have made a lot of sacrifices and gave up a lot,” Biden declared through a bullhorn. “The companies were in trouble, but now they’re doing incredibly well. And guess what? You should be doing incredibly well, too. You deserve a significant raise.”

“It’s time to get back what we lost. ... You've earned what you've earned and you should be earning a helluva lot more.”

That means “the significant increase you need” in wages “and other benefits,” he added. “It’s time for them to step up for us.” 

The workers, who interrupted his brief remarks with cheers several times, are among the almost 18,000 UAW members nationwide who now walk lines in the union’s growing “Stand Up!” strike against Detroit's Big Three.

It’s UAW’s first strike against all three, just as bargaining is the first against all of them at the same time. Combined, the car firms employ 150,000 UAW members, not counting those in non-Big Three parts suppliers or 5,600 workers whom Ford employs in Canada, represented by Unifor. 

The UAW strike has political and class aspects, too, though neither Biden nor new UAW President Shawn Fain—its first president elected by popular vote—mentioned politics. Fain, who followed Biden to the podium, talked class.

“It’s a different kind of war we’re fighting,” not against the Axis powers of World War II, “but against corporate greed” here at home, Fain said. “Our people choose to stand up and fight for economic and social justice.” His Axis reference cited Willow Run’s enormous production of B-24 Liberator bombers during that conflict.

Politics enters the picture because the leading current Republican presidential contender, former Oval Office occupant Donald Trump, is shrugging off four indictments and numerous other scandals while campaigning to retake swing-state Michigan in 2024.

Trump beat 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton there by fewer than 10,800 popular votes and won a plurality, not a majority. In 2020, Biden beat Trump by 154,188 votes, 50.2%–47.8%, amid Trump’s lies about vote fraud there, targeting Detroit, which is heavily majority-minority.

Trump beat Clinton in all four Great Lakes swing states—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—where industrial unions in general and the UAW in particular are strong, thus winning the electoral vote but losing the popular vote nationally. Biden won the first three of those in 2020, losing Ohio. He won majorities of both the electoral and popular votes. 

Trump spoke at a nonunion shop, Drake Enterprises in Wayne County’s Clinton Township, before a cherry-picked crowd of 500 factory workers, including current and retired UAW members. 

Trump shruggedoff the second scheduled GOP presidential hopefuls’ debate, which was telecast at the same time. UAW has already filed an unfair labor practices complaint against another debater, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., for demanding that all strikers be fired. 

If there is no movement by GM or Stellantis in the talks, the UAW will call more locals out on strike. Ironically, though Local 174 in Willow Run picketed the plant there, it’s the only Ford plant where workers are striking, because Ford has moved significantly in bargaining. 

The Sept. 22 expansion of the strike saw locals at 38 GM and Stellantis-unionized parts factories, but no others from Ford, called to walk out, joining workers at one plant from each automaker who began picketing a week before.

Key issues in the talks with all three automakers are wages, restoration of traditional defined-benefit pensions and health care, an end to the hated two-tier pay system at all three automakers, a shorter workweek, curbs on mandatory overtime and mandatory work on the third Sunday of every month, and restoration of cost-of-living (COLA) increases. 

The workers demand a 36% hike over four years to make up for losses to inflation since the 2008 financier-caused Great Recession. That crash forced GM and FiatChrysler into bankruptcy. 

A Democratic Obama administration loan guarantee plan saved the two, but at the cost of imposing the two tiers, eliminating COLAs, a freeze on retiree pensions that continues, and the sell-off of health care coverage to the UAW, among other givebacks.

Ford agreed to the COLAs, the end of two tiers and several other UAW member goals, including the right to strike over domestic plant closures. GM and Stellantis have barely budged. Their sole reported agreement: Adding Juneteenth as a paid holiday.

“President Biden is demonstrating once again that he is the most pro-union president in history," AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement afterward. “Working people know he has our backs every day and that he understands UAW members’ fight for a fair contract is deeply connected to the struggle over the soul of our country.

“We stand with President Biden, the UAW and workers across the country who are sick and tired of getting the short end of the stick," she said. "Together, we're organized to fight back against the corporate CEOs who have rigged the system against working people for far too long.”

Biden’s remarks on the picket line also occurred though the union was a notable absentee from the giant AFL-CIO-organized joint union endorsement of the Biden-Harris ticket this year. That conclave, in Philadelphia, even drew non-AFL-CIO unions, notably SEIU, but not the UAW. Both the union and the Big Three automakers back the shift to electric-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, a key part of Biden’s plan to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming. But the first two federal loans to build electric vehicle battery plants went to firms in anti-union Kentucky and Tennessee, not pro-union Michigan. 

The car companies also are using conversion of their plants to electric vehicle assembly, which will cost billions of dollars, as an excuse to both pause EV battery plant construction and to deny workers’ demands for the big raises. UAW also wants EV plant workers included in its contracts with the Big Three, rather than on separate and lower pay tracks for auto parts workers.

University of Rhode Island labor history professor Erik Loomis told CNN Biden’s picket line walk and talk was “absolutely unprecedented.” He said presidents—going all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt—“saw themselves as mediators. They did not see it as their place to directly intervene in a strike or in labor action.”

Presidential mediation doesn’t always work. 

In 1902, Roosevelt forced coal mine owners to reach a contract with the Mine Workers. But just months ago, a Biden-named mediation board rejected rail unions’ campaign for paid leave and saner scheduling in talks with the nation’s Class I freight railroads. Congress imposed that settlement, leaving the paid leave issue to talks between the unions and the carriers. 

And when President John F. Kennedy mediated between the Steelworkers and steel firm magnates in 1962 during an economic crisis, the companies agreed not to raise prices —and then reneged. They also refused to raise wages. 

"My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it until now," Kennedy told aides after the double-cross.  He also used tough language in a subsequent press conference, but minus the insult. The firms backed down.

Watch the entire video of Biden on the picket line here.