DETROIT – President Joe Biden flew into Metro Detroit on Tuesday to meet with autoworkers striking at Detroit’s Big Three automakers. It was the first known instance of a sitting U.S. president actually joining the picket lines of an active labor strike.
The president arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Tuesday, Sept. 26, and joined members of the United Auto Workers union on the picket line in Wayne County early afternoon.
Biden’s message was simple but could have big ramifications. He told workers on the picket line in Van Buren Township to stick with it.
“You made a lot of sacrifices, gave up a lot and the companies were in trouble,” Biden told the crowd. “Now they’re doing incredibly well and guess what? You should be doing incredibly well too.”
After Biden spoke, UAW President Shawn Fain called the U.S. president’s visit significant.
“It’s a great thing to see, you know? A sitting president, first time in history, comes out and stands on a picket line with working-class people and shows support,” Fain said. “It’s a big deal.”
Equally impressed were the UAW members who attended the event.
“Just for a president to come to a picket line, that’s unbelievable,” said UAW Local 174 member Adrian Mitchell. “I can’t look into the future, but I believe he’ll probably push the Big Three to get back to the table and try to get a fair deal for us.”
As of Tuesday, about 18,000 of the UAW’s 146,000 autoworkers were striking nationwide against General Motors, Stellantis and Ford Motor Company. The union and the carmakers failed to reach an agreement by their Sept. 14 contract deadline, prompting the union to initiate a strike the next day.
Democratic President Biden, who has been establishing himself as a pro-union leader, has shown support for the UAW’s auto strike, agreeing with the union’s sentiment that the Big Three’s recent “record profits” should translate to better pay and benefits for workers. To strengthen his stance, Biden was expected to join auto workers on the picket lines on Tuesday in Michigan, where negotiations have been taking place since July.
U.S. presidents don’t have much of a history of visiting active picket lines, or of showing more support for labor workers than the industry itself. Even the more pro-union presidents like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman never joined an ongoing strike, historians say. Theodore Roosevelt did invite labor leaders and mine operators to visit the White House during the coal strike in 1902.
As the tense talks and subsequent strike unfolded between the UAW and the Big Three, Biden has walked a fine line on the issue, though he has shown a bit more sympathy for the laborers. While campaigning for reelection amid a time when union members are being more active and vocal than they have in recent years, the president has essentially supported the UAW’s demands.
“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 at the White House. Now that the “industry is roaring back,” according to Biden, he stressed that autoworkers should also benefit.
Completely taking the UAW’s side could be risky for the president, who has recently been working with companies like the Big Three to help support and encourage a massive transition to electric vehicle production. EVs fall under the Biden administration’s efforts to shift toward clean energy initiatives.
Two of Biden’s top aides were asked to come to Detroit to help out with negotiations wherever they were needed. Labor Secretary Julie Su and senior aide Gene Sperling were initially expected to arrive in the Motor City last week, but changed their plans and were instead expected sometime this week.
Former President Donald Trump is also expected to visit Michigan this week on Wednesday to speak with striking autoworkers. Though the former president hopes to appear sympathetic to the union, he has been working to chip away at union support in critical swing states, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
UAW President Fain didn’t show any interest in Trump’s expected appearance, and completely dismissed the 2024 presidential candidate’s attempts to appear supportive of the union.
“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,” Fain said. “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.”