Biden Joins Autoworkers on Picket Line in Michigan

New York Times

President Biden’s appearance was an extraordinary gesture of support to a labor union by a sitting president. Former President Donald J. Trump plans his own visit on Wednesday.

President Biden grabbed a bullhorn and joined striking autoworkers in Michigan on Tuesday, becoming the first sitting president to join a picket line in an extraordinary show of support for workers demanding better wages.

Auto companies were doing well, Mr. Biden told dozens of workers outside a General Motors facility that employs more than 200 people in Belleville, Mich., outside Detroit.

“Guess what? You should be doing just as well,” Mr. Biden told the crowd, drawing applause. He fist-bumped several members of the United Auto Workers union.

“You’ve heard me say many times: Wall Street didn’t build this country,” he said. “The middle class built this country. And unions built the middle class. That’s a fact. Let’s keep going. You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you get paid now.”

The president’s 15-minute visit, held under gray skies as classic-rock songs by John Mellencamp and Aerosmith played in the background, came at the invitation of Shawn Fain, U.A.W.’s president, as Mr. Biden tries to solidify support in a key swing state.

Mr. Biden’s visit looked like a capstone for a politician who for decades has positioned himself as a champion of the middle class, but other political forces were at play as well. He joined the workers one day before his predecessor and likely 2024 rival, former President Donald J. Trump, is scheduled to visit a nearby county and deliver remarks to current and former union members.

Mr. Biden spoke for only a couple of minutes before turning the bullhorn back to Mr. Fain, who has criticized Mr. Trump’s planned visit. While the president watched, Mr. Fain railed against executives and the billionaire class.

“They think they own the world,” Mr. Fain said. “But we make it run.”

The White House has been hesitant to say whether Mr. Biden supported what U.A.W. workers were asking for, but when asked whether the workers deserved a 40 percent pay raise, he responded: “Yes. I think they should be able to bargain for that.”

Automakers, who have argued that wage increases beyond what they have already offered could damage their competitiveness as the industry shifts to embrace electric cars, did not exactly hail the president’s visit. “Our focus is not on politics but continues to be on bargaining in good faith with the U.A.W. leadership to reach an agreement as quickly as possible that rewards our work force and allows G.M. to succeed and thrive into the future,” General Motors said in a statement, adding that “nobody wins” from a strike.

Still, the White House is betting that Mr. Biden’s visit is enough to help counter Mr. Trump’s visit to the area and earn the president points with U.A.W., which backed him in 2020 but has not yet endorsed him, citing concerns over the administration’s push for a transition to electric vehicles.

It is the first time this campaign season that Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, whose political styles are as divergent as their visions for the country, will be competing in real time for a powerful bloc of working-class voters.

In one corner, Mr. Biden has argued that his clean-energy agenda — including a shift toward electric vehicles — will create new manufacturing jobs, even as companies that make batteries and other electric-vehicle parts resist unionizing their workers.

In another, Mr. Trump has channeled the growing frustration among workers who fear for the future of their jobs. “REMEMBER, HE WANTS TO TAKE YOUR JOBS AWAY AND GIVE THEM TO CHINA AND OTHER FOREIGN COUNTRIES.” Mr. Trump wrote of Mr. Biden on social media on Monday, adding, “I WILL KEEP YOUR JOBS AND MAKE YOU RICH!!!

Officials with both campaigns, of course, have pounced.

“No self-serving photo op can erase Trump’s four years of abandoning union workers and standing with his ultrarich friends,” Ammar Moussa, a spokesman for Mr. Biden’s campaign, said in a statement.

Jason Miller, a senior adviser for Mr. Trump, said the president’s visit showed he was on the defensive.

“This underscores the fact of how perilous Biden’s political footing is: a state that Democrats would have you convinced is safely blue, to talk with a constituency that Democrats would have you convinced are safely in their camp,” Mr. Miller said in an interview.

In the White House, Mr. Biden’s advisers have insisted that his visit has little to nothing to do with his predecessor’s, though they say Mr. Biden’s appearance is sure to strike a contrast with Mr. Trump’s planned visit to Drake Enterprises, a nonunion plant in Macomb County.

Michigan is seen as a critical state for Democrats in 2024. While it was one of Mr. Trump’s most surprising victories in 2016, Mr. Biden carried the state in 2020.

Mr. Trump has no plans to meet with Mr. Fain, who has publicly criticized the former president’s plans to travel to Michigan: “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,” Mr. Fain said last week.

Still, many workers in his union have balked at the Biden administration’s proposal of the country’s most ambitious climate regulations, which would ensure that two-thirds of new passenger cars are all-electric by 2032, up from 5.8 percent today.

Presidents are typically expected to be neutral arbiters between striking laborers and the companies they work for, and many modern presidents have struggled to find a middle ground.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers, undermining a union effort by arguing that federal workers were in violation of an employment oath not to strike against the government. The decision traumatized the labor movement for decades and caused Democratic presidents to speak delicately about the power of unions.

Mr. Biden has stood firmly stood with U.A.W., which is calling for increased wages, shorter work hours and expanded benefits from three Detroit automakers: General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, the parent of Chrysler.

Since the strike began on Sept. 15, Mr. Biden has been calling on companies and workers to reach an agreement that would spare a ripple effect through the economy that could raise auto prices and disrupt supply chains.

Historians said that Mr. Biden, who came of age during an era of strong unions, is returning Democrats to their roots.

”The recent Democrats have slipped a little,” said Ileen A. DeVault, a professor of labor history at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, “but I think Biden really is pro-union and pro-labor, and he really is trying to improve working conditions for workers in the United States.”

She did not see the same with Mr. Trump. “I do not see any evidence that he has done anything at all to either help unions in this country,” she said, “let alone to help ordinary people.”

The trip to Michigan is part of a gantlet of a week for Mr. Biden, who hosted a summit with Pacific island leaders on Monday before starting a three-day sprint across the country, beginning in Wayne County, which includes Detroit.

On Tuesday, Mr. Biden was scheduled to travel to San Francisco, where he will hold a campaign reception. On Wednesday, he will host a meeting with advisers who develop recommendations on science, technology and innovation policy.

On Thursday, he is set to deliver remarks centered on the state of democracy in Arizona, an appearance that is expected to be an implicit rebuttal to the Republican presidential debate and Mr. Trump’s campaign activities. He will also honor the legacy of John McCain, the longtime Republican senator from Arizona who died in 2018 and who was a frequent foil of Mr. Trump’s.

Before making his way to the picket line in Michigan, Mr. Biden asked what it would take to receive the U.A.W.’s endorsement.

“I’m not worried about that,” he replied.

Jack Ewing contributed reporting.

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