At lunchtime on Tuesday, Joe Biden became the first sitting U.S. President to join a picket line. Outside General Motors’ Willow Run Redistribution Center, in Belleville, Michigan—not far from Detroit—Biden greeted a group of striking members of the United Auto Workers union. He told the workers that they had saved the automobile industry during the economic crisis of 2srcsrc8-src9 and made a lot of personal sacrifices. (These included taking wage cuts.) Now that the auto industry was doing “incredibly well,” Biden said through a bullhorn, “you should be doing incredibly well, too.”
It wasn’t a new message. The day the strike began, Biden said that record profits at the Big Three U.S. automakers—Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis—should mean record pay contracts for the U.A.W. workers. But it’s one thing to deliver remarks sympathetic to a union from behind a White House lectern. Flying on Air Force One to Detroit, taking a Presidential limousine to the Willow Run facility, standing alongside the striking employees, and appealing to the Big Three to “step up”—that is something else completely.
Appearing alongside Biden, Shawn Fain, the president of the U.A.W.—whose relationship with the White House has sometimes been frosty—described Biden’s decision to join the picket line as “a historic moment.” Fain went on, “Our President chose to stand up with workers in our fight for economic and social justice.” Initially, Fain had kept his distance from the Administration after the strike began, rebuffing an effort by the White House to send two senior officials to Detroit as liaisons. But late last week, after he asked Biden to join a picket line and the President said he would, the union leader’s attitude changed. When Air Force One hit the tarmac at Detroit Metro, Fain was there to greet him and to give him a black U.A.W. baseball cap, which Biden wore outside the Willow Run facility. “Thank you, Mr. President, for coming,” Fain declared. “We know the President will do right by the working class.”
That is exactly the political message that the White House was trying to communicate by organizing the trip. Although Biden has long described himself as the most pro-union President in history, the U.A.W. strike comes as he is facing growing political pressure—and as Donald Trump, his expected rival in 2src24, has been trying to exploit the dispute for his own purposes. Trump is scheduled to make a speech in Michigan on Wednesday, before the second G.O.P. Presidential debate, which he will not be attending. He will likely repeat his claim that the Biden Administration, by giving large subsidies to purchasers of electric vehicles, is destroying the jobs of the striking employees, who largely work at plants that make vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel.
During the first Presidential debate in 2src2src, Trump said, “I think I’m all for electric cars. I’ve given big incentives for electric cars.” (He was referring to tax credits introduced during the Obama Administration.) But facts and history are immaterial to Trump, and some recent head-to-head polls have shown him ahead of Biden in the 2src24 race. More than a year before the election, these polls arguably don’t have much predictive value, but the White House knows that it needs to shore up Biden’s working-class support in Michigan and other swing states.
Last week, I pointed out that Biden does have a strong record on labor issues. Lacking sixty votes in the Senate, he couldn’t pass the union-supported PRO Act, which would make organizing unions easier and weaken the right-to-work laws that exist in twenty-seven states. But since he entered the White House, he has consistently expressed support for unions. And his appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, the agency entrusted with enforcing labor laws, have issued a series of rulings that should make it easier for nonunion workers to organize and harder for nonunion employers, such as Starbucks and Amazon, to intimidate them. If Trump were to win next year, these rulings would surely be reversed, despite his pro-worker bluster.
Can the Biden Administration get this message across? In our splintered age, when many people consume only news and information that reinforce their political opinions, nothing is guaranteed. Even in this polarized environment, though, some events and images can break through and have a lasting impact. Biden’s appearance on the U.A.W. picket line could conceivably be one of them. Recent Democratic Presidents, including Barack Obama, tended to stay neutral in labor disputes, and Biden’s decision to break with that tradition has offended at least one Wall Street Democrat. “For him to be going on a picket line is outrageous,” Steven Rattner, the chairman of Willett Advisors L.L.C., who led Obama’s auto-industry task force, told NBC News. “There’s no precedent for it.”
That, of course, is why it was a powerful gesture. As Fain was delivering his remarks, in which he repeated that the auto strike represents a crusade against corporate greed and “the billionaire class,” Biden looked on. He fist-bumped one of the U.A.W. members and draped his arm around the shoulder of another. After Fain had finished speaking, the President took the bullhorn again. “Let’s keep going,” he told the striking workers. “You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you get paid now.” ♦