Megaphone in hand, surrounded by Secret Service agents and the red shirts of the United Auto Workers union, “Comrade Biden” spoke in solidarity with the striking workers: “You guys, the UAW — you saved the automobile industry back in 2008 and before. You made a lot of sacrifices. You gave up a lot. And the companies were in trouble. But now they’re doing incredibly well. And guess what? You should be doing incredibly well too. It’s a simple proposition. Folks, stick with it, because you deserve the significant raise you need and other benefits.”
On Tuesday, in a scheduled appearance, Joe Biden joined what was certainly the picket line with the biggest security detail in history. The presidential motorcade went to a General Motors plant near Detroit, a radical move that marked the first time that an occupant of the White House physically joined up with striking workers.
“This is a historic moment—the first time in our country’s history that a sitting US president has come out and stood on the picket line,” UAW President Shawn Fain said. “Our president has chosen to stand up with workers in our fight for economic and social justice.”
Biden, who claims he is the “most pro-union president in American history,” has said from the beginning of the dispute that it was time for workers to get back some of the concessions made by unions during the financial crisis of the early 2000s. In the past decade, auto manufacturers, once on the brink of bankruptcy, have posted record profits on the back of the SUV and pickup truck boom. Workers are demanding better working conditions, reduced hours, getting back health and pension benefits they gave up in the past, and pay raises of up to 40 percent to reflect the companies’ increased turnovers, who are pocketing the profits.
Up to now, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, Chrysler’s parent company, have offered 21 percent raises as well as partial benefit increases, rejected by the union as insufficient.
The support of American workers as a path to the expansion of the middle class is central to the FDR-like narrative on which Biden has tried to build his administration’s economic policy and now his campaign for a second term in the White House. Two days before his appearance at the UAW strike, he welcomed the victory of the screenwriters in their dispute with the Hollywood studios by urging “all employers to remember that all workers – including writers, actors, and autoworkers – deserve a fair share of the value of their labor.”
Hollywood, Detroit and many other areas are currently beset by labor conflicts, with harsh criticism of managers and directors with their stratospheric compensation packages, and with class struggle – until recently the exclusive domain of politicians such as Bernie Sanders – starting to be more openly invoked. A demonstrative act like Biden’s on Tuesday would once have been the prerogative of opposition figures rather than someone at the head of government. “Wall Street didn’t build the country,” the president said. “The middle class built the country, and unions built the middle class.”
In the background of the dispute is the looming electrification of the auto sector, with all the unknowns related to cost, consumption, raw materials and competition from China and, in a wider view, the gradual abandonment of a model based on hydrocarbons, highly lucrative for the industry. Manufacturers are claiming that, in this context, too-high labor costs risk returning the industry to the competitive crisis of two decades ago. Biden is banking on the conversion to electric as an economic stimulus, while right-wing populism is sowing panic about unaffordable costs that would have to be borne by the workers themselves. One thing both parties agree on is the need for protectionism against China.
In this sense, Biden’s blitz in Detroit amounted to the first day of actual campaigning, given his sparring – remote but from a closer distance – with Donald Trump, who had his own appearance scheduled for Wednesday at a (non-union) auto parts supplier in the same city. Trump’s move was both another boycott of the scheduled debate of the other GOP candidates in California and his own bid to earn favor with blue collar voters.
Also significant was the terrain of this “tit-for-tat” clash: Michigan, in addition to being a bastion of the automotive industry, is a swing state, won narrowly by Trump in 2016 and recaptured by Biden four years later. The long-distance duel these days is a direct confrontation between Biden’s blue-collar populism and the nationalist rhetoric with racial overtones with which Trump had managed to win over strategic segments of the white working class in his early rise.
As Biden was in Michigan, Trump addressed the strikers via social media in his characteristic style: “REMEMBER, HE WANTS TO TAKE YOUR JOBS AWAY AND GIVE THEM TO CHINA AND OTHER FOREIGN COUNTRIES. I WILL KEEP YOUR JOBS AND MAKE YOU RICH.”
In spite of the all caps tour de force, the first round seems to have gone to Biden. While not exactly left reeling, Trump seemed forced to do some hasty damage control, in part because the leadership of the union rejected his own overtures: “Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers,” said Shawn Fain. “We can’t keep electing billionaires and millionaires that don’t have any understanding what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to get by and expecting them to solve the problems of the working class.”
True to form, Trump fired back: “I think he’s not doing a good job in representing his union, because he’s not going to have a union in three years from now.”
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