On September 15, the United Auto Workers began a targeted strike against Ford, GM, and Stellantis (the conglomerate that includes Chrysler) in an effort to secure higher wages, a four-day work week, and other protections in the union’s next contract. The strike is a huge development for American workers, but it’s also a big deal for President Joe Biden—these car companies are central to his green-infrastructure agenda. The union wants assurances that the industry’s historic, heavily subsidized transition toward electric vehicles will work for them, too.
Biden, whose National Labor Relations Board has been an ally of labor organizers in fights against companies such as Amazon and Starbucks, has called himself “the most pro-union president in American history.” He has expressed support for the UAW’s cause (workers “deserve their fair share of the benefits they helped create,” he said last week) and has sent aides to Michigan to assist in the negotiations.
And on Friday, the White House announced that Biden would do something no sitting president has ever done before: Next Tuesday, the president will walk a picket line in Michigan to show his support.
Tuesday, I’ll go to Michigan to join the picket line and stand in solidarity with the men and women of UAW as they fight for a fair share of the value they helped create.
It’s time for a win-win agreement that keeps American auto manufacturing thriving with well-paid UAW jobs.
— President Biden (@POTUS) September 22, 2023
Biden’s move comes at a critical time in the strike, both as a labor struggle and a political development. On Friday UAW president Shawn Fain announced new plans to target GM and Stellantis facilities in 20 states and issued a public invitation to Biden—and “everyone who supports our cause”—to “join us on the picket lines.” (Ford workers are still striking, but the UAW has acknowledged that its negotiations with that company have been more productive). And next week, former President Donald Trump will speak to autoworkers in Michigan, ostensibly to make the case that the push for electric vehicles—and not corporate profits—is what’s crushing workers. (Trump’s Republican primary rivals, for the most part, have abandoned any pretense and simply told the workers to get lost.)
It’s not unusual for politicians to walk a picket line; candidates often make a point of dropping by with donuts and coffee to express their solidarity for the cameras. In 2020, Biden marched outside The Palms in Las Vegas with casino workers who were pushing for owners to sign a contract with the union. But no sitting president has ever walked a picket line with striking workers. They have, historically, been much more prone to extravagant shows of solidarity with companies that are trying to break strikes. In 1894, Grover Cleveland sent 2,000 federal troops to Chicago to break a railroad strike.
Biden hasn’t announced where exactly in Michigan he’ll be. But it’s a safe bet that wherever he ends up going, the National Guard won’t be coming with him.