Biden jumps into the autoworker picket line and makes history

By Hannah Northey | 09/26/2023 04:28 PM EDT

President Joe Biden speaks as he joins striking United Auto Workers on the picket line.

President Joe Biden speaks as he joins striking United Auto Workers on the picket line Tuesday in Van Buren Township, Mich. Evan Vucci/AP Photo

BELLEVILLE, Mich. — President Joe Biden made history Tuesday, becoming the first sitting president to walk with workers striking at a Michigan auto parts distribution center and thrusting himself further into an ongoing labor dispute that’s likely to have far-reaching political implications.

Biden joined Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers, to rally workers on strike at General Motors Co.’s Willow Run Redistribution Center in Belleville, Mich., where he applauded their contributions to the success of Ford Motor Co., GM and Stellantis NV.

“Now [automakers] are doing incredibly well,” Biden said through a bullhorn to members of the UAW Local 174. “And guess what? You should be doing incredibly well, too.”

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Biden, who was greeted at the airport in Detroit by Fain, Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Michigan Democratic Reps. Shri Thanedar, Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib, marched alongside workers with signs that read “UAW STAND UP RECORD PROFITS RECORD CONTRACTS,” according to pool reports.

The president’s visit was focused on the Willow Run facility, which employs about 200 workers. Union members there were called to walk off their jobs last week as the UAW escalated its strike against the Big Three automakers to include GM and Stellantis parts and distribution centers.

Workers who marched alongside Biden applauded the president for drawing attention to their plight. “I think it’s significant to have a sitting president actually come to the picket line,” said Ralph Morris, a union member and worker at the Willow Run facility. “It’s never been done before. It signals the president’s office supports working-class people.”

But GM pushed back in a statement, arguing that the company has offered record-setting economic proposals to the union.

“Our focus is not on politics but continues to be on bargaining in good faith with the UAW leadership to reach an agreement as quickly as possible that rewards our workforce and allows GM to succeed and thrive into the future,” said Jeannine Ginivan, a company spokesperson.

“We have presented five, record economic proposals that address the areas our team members have said matter most, including wage increases and job security,” said Ginivan. “We value our workforce and understand the impact a strike has on our employees, communities and the economy — nobody wins.”

Biden’s visit was met with mixed reactions among union members on the picket line at Ford’s Wayne assembly plant, about 8 miles east of where the president appeared.

The president’s visit is notably occurring just one day before former President Donald Trump also plans to visit the state instead of participating in the second Republican primary debate.

Sean Conley, a union member and upfitter at the Wayne assembly plant for 30 years, noted Biden’s push to transition the country to electric vehicles.

“He’s pushing an EV agenda — it’s a job killer,” Conley said. “We don’t need him. I feel like it’s a photo-op for him.”

But the White House framed Biden’s visit as cementing his loyalty to the unions.

“President Biden is no stranger to a picket line. In fact, he joined a UAW picket in Kansas City back in 2019,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Tuesday morning aboard Air Force One on the way to Wayne County. “Today marked the first time a sitting President has visited a picket line in modern times.”

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy took a shot at Biden’s participation in the strike.

“He created the reason why they’re on strike. They’re on strike because their jobs are going away. Why? Because this president subsidizes electric cars over everything else,” said McCarthy, a California Republican.

After the event, Fain told reporters that the automakers’ transition to electric vehicles is playing a central role in negotiations as union members strive to ensure they benefit from such seismic shifts.

Fain called for a “just transition” and again blasted Ford’s decision on Monday to announce plans to pause work on an EV battery plant in Marshall, Mich.

“We have to have a piece of that. Workers can’t be left behind. … We’ve made it apparent to the companies that we want a future in that industry,” said Fain. “We’re not against a green economy, but we’re against a green economy if the workers get left behind — it’s got to be a just transition.”

Fain also blasted Trump’s decision to visit a nonunion location Wednesday. Trump is scheduled to deliver remarks in Clinton Township at Drake Enterprises Inc., a supplier of automotive parts.

“I find that odd, he’s going to go to a nonunion business to talk to union workers,” said Fain. “I don’t think he gets it.”

Reporters Robin Bravender and Andres Picon contributed.