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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden joins autoworkers on picket line in Michigan

President Joe Biden, right, listens to Shawn Fain, the United Automobile Workers president, speak as he joins picketers at a United Automobile Workers picket line outside a GM parts facility in Belleview, Mich., Sept. 26, 2023.

By Katie Rogers and Erica L. Green

President Joe Biden grabbed a bullhorn and joined striking autoworkers in Michigan earlier this week, 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, Biden told dozens of workers outside a General Motors facility that employs more than 200 people in Belleville, Michigan, outside Detroit.

“Guess what? You should be doing just as well,” Biden told the crowd, drawing applause. He fist-bumped several members of the United Automobile 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 on Tuesday, held under gray skies as classic-rock songs by John Mellencamp and Aerosmith played in the background, came at the invitation of UAW President Shawn Fain as Biden tries to solidify support in a key swing state.

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 Trump, is scheduled to visit a nearby county and deliver remarks to current and former union members.

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

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

The White House has been hesitant to say whether Biden supported what UAW workers were asking for, but when asked whether the workers deserved a 40% 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 UAW leadership to reach an agreement as quickly as possible that rewards our workforce and allows GM to succeed and thrive into the future,” GM said in a statement, adding that “nobody wins” from a strike.

Still, the White House is betting that Biden’s visit is enough to help counter Trump’s visit to the area and earn the president points with UAW, 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 Biden and 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, 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, 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,” Trump wrote of Biden on social media 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 spokesperson for Biden’s campaign, said in a statement.

Jason Miller, a senior adviser for 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,” Miller said in an interview.

In the White House, Biden’s advisers have insisted that his visit has little to nothing to do with his predecessor’s, though they say Biden’s appearance is sure to strike a contrast with 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 Trump’s most surprising victories in 2016, Biden carried the state in 2020.

Trump has no plans to meet with 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,” 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% today.

Biden has stood firmly with UAW, which is calling for increased wages, shorter work hours and expanded benefits from three Detroit automakers: GM, Ford and Stellantis, the parent of Chrysler.

Since the strike began Sept. 15, 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.

Before making his way to the picket line in Michigan, Biden was asked what it would take to receive the UAW’s endorsement.

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

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