A Tale of Two Presidents: Biden Visits Striking UAW Workers, Trump Visits Non-Union Shop

By Kyle Kaminski

September 27, 2023

During a visit to Michigan this week, President Joe Biden became the first president in history to stand in solidarity with striking workers. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is stopping by a non-union parts shop about 20 miles from the nearest United Auto Workers picket line. 

WAYNE COUNTY—President Joe Biden on Tuesday grabbed a bullhorn on the picket line and urged striking Michigan auto workers to “stick with it,” marking the first time in history that the president of the United States has visited a picket line to stand in solidarity with striking workers.

Donning a union ball cap and exchanging fist bumps, Biden told dozens of United Auto Workers union strikers at General Motors Willow Run Redistribution Center that “you deserve the significant raise you need.” And when asked if workers deserve raises to match soaring corporate profits, Biden said: “Yes. I think they should be able to bargain for that.”

“The fact of the matter is that you guys, the UAW, you saved the automobile industry back in 2008 … you made a lot of sacrifices,” Biden said. “You gave up a lot. And the companies were in trouble. Now they’re doing incredibly well and guess what? You should be doing incredibly well.”

Biden, who has described himself as the most pro-union president in American history, has repeatedly argued that the nation’s biggest auto companies—Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis—have not gone far enough to meet the UAW’s demands, especially after workers were forced to take concessions on wages and other perks in the wake of the Great Recession.

His visit to Michigan following an invitation from UAW President Shawn Fain, who stood alongside Biden on the picket line Tuesday. 

“Thank you, Mr. President, for coming to stand up with us in our generation-defining moment,” said Fain, who described the union as engaged in a “kind of war” against “corporate greed.”

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United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain on Tuesday praised President Joe Biden for becoming the first president in more than a century to visit striking workers on a picket line. “Our president has chose to stand up with workers in our fight for economic and social justice,” Fain said. “We know the president will do right by the working class.” More than 18,000 auto workers in Michigan are currently on strike against General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis, fighting for pay raises, benefits, and security amid record corporate profits. #Michigander #Michiganders #UAWStrike #Biden #HotUnionSummer #UnionStrong

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“Our president has chosen to stand up with workers in our fight for economic and social justice,” Fain told workers on the picket line Tuesday. “It’s a historic moment in time. It’s about the auto workers who are part of the fabric of the working class in this country. We’re the people who make the world run. It’s not the billionaire class, not the elite few. It’s the working class of billions of people who’ve been left behind. That’s what this battle is about. We’re changing that.”

Labor historians said they could not recall an instance when a sitting president had joined an ongoing strike, even during the tenures of ardent pro-union presidents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. President Theodore Roosevelt once invited labor leaders alongside mine operators to the White House amid a historic coal strike in 1902—a decision that was seen at the time as a rare embrace of unions as Roosevelt tried to resolve the dispute.

“Joe Biden has been by our side the whole way through. It’s nice to hear these words while the companies are profitable. If anybody knows what we deserve, it is President Joe Biden,” UAW Local 14 President Tony Totty told CNN on Tuesday. “When you look at the Obama administration, he was over the reconstruction for the auto industry. He knows what we gave up. Now that these corporations are so profitable, just like he said, we deserve that raise.”

Biden’s visit to the picket line in Michigan has also been viewed as the most significant demonstration of his pro-union bona fides—a record that includes vocal support for unionization efforts at Amazon facilities and executive actions that have promoted worker organizing. Biden also chose pro-union figures to lead the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is tasked with safeguarding workers’ rights to organize and enforcing the country’s labor laws.

He also earned a joint endorsement of major unions earlier this year and has avoided southern California for high-dollar fundraisers amid the writers’ and actors’ strikes in Hollywood. The United Farm Workers announced their endorsement of Biden on Tuesday, calling him “an authentic champion for workers and their families, regardless of their race or national origin.” 

A Day Late and a Dollar Short

Former President Donald Trump’s decision to follow Biden to Michigan for a visit near Detroit on Wednesday carries a different sort of tenor for Michigan’s striking autoworkers. 

On Wednesday night, Trump is set to speak to workers at Drake Enterprises in Clinton Township—a non-union parts supplier that’s located about 20 miles northeast of the nearest UAW picket line. And union leaders aren’t exactly welcoming the ex-president with open arms.

“I don’t think he cares about working-class people. I think he cares about the billionaire class, he cares about the corporate interests. I think he’s just trying to pander to people and say what they want to hear, and it’s a shame,” Fain said Tuesday when asked about Trump’s upcoming visit.

With a significant lead against his Republican rivals in the presidential primary polls, Trump is so confident of cruising through the primary election that he refuses to share a debate stage with them. Instead, he’s spending the time trying to win over blue-collar workers in Michigan—and apparently hoping that autoworkers will overlook his lengthy anti-union history in the Oval Office.

Union leaders have said Trump’s first term was far from worker-friendly, citing unfavorable rulings from his NLRB and the US Supreme Court, as well as unfulfilled promises of automotive jobs. And while the United Auto Workers union has withheld an endorsement of any candidate in the 2024 presidential race, its leadership has repeatedly rebuffed Trump—including claims from Trump campaign ads that he has “always had their back.”

Instead, union leaders say their members would do well to believe their own eyes.

“Look who Trump put in the courts,” said UAW Director Dave Green. “Look at his record with the labor relations board. He did nothing to support organized labor except lip service.”

A Tale of Two Presidents: Biden Visits Striking UAW Workers, Trump Visits Non-Union Shop

The Democratic National Committee sponsored four billboards near Detroit this week.

The National Labor Relations Board came under Republican control during the Trump administration for the first time since 2007. Under Trump, it quickly reversed several key Obama-era rulings that made it easier for small unions to organize, strengthened the bargaining rights of franchise workers, and provided protection against anti-union measures for employees.

Mark McManus, president of the plumbers and pipefitters union, said in a statement last week that Trump “tried to gut” the National Labor Relations Board under his administration “to undo the safeguards that protect working families.” Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber said the board was stacked with “anti-worker appointees who trampled on collective bargaining rights.”

Union leaders have also pointed to unfavorable US Supreme Court rulings under a conservative majority that grew during Trump’s term. The nation’s high court has dealt a number of blows to unions—most recently ruling against unionized drivers who went on strike in Washington state

“If you’re appointing conservatives to the court, you’re often appointing people who relate to the preference for business or property owners or shareholders, more than the preference of stakeholders like workers,” said Peter Berg, a professor at Michigan State University.

And despite Trump’s recent insistence that he has “always been on the side of American workers,” he largely sat on the sidelines during a 40-day walkout at a GM plant in 2019.

Job growth figures in the auto industry during Trump’s presidency also contradict his claim that the industry thrived under his watch. The total number of auto manufacturing jobs in Michigan, which holds the most automotive jobs in the US, stayed even during Trump’s presidency.

READ MORE: Union Leaders Blast Trump for ‘Broken Promises’ Ahead of Michigan Visit

What’s Next?

The UAW’s targeted strikes against the Big Three automakers began at midnight on Sept. 14 and have since expanded to 38 parts distribution centers in 20 states—including 14 locations in Michigan. The union is pushing for higher wages, better benefits, shorter work weeks, and assurances from the country’s top automakers that new electric vehicle jobs will be unionized.

Specifically, the union is asking for 36% raises in general pay over four years, arguing that record corporate profits that have gone towards stock buybacks and exorbitant CEO salaries should instead be shared with workers. Leaders have also demanded a 32-hour week with 40 hours of pay and a return of cost-of-living pay raises, among other benefits. 

The UAW also wants to be allowed to represent workers at 10 electric vehicle battery factories, most of which are being built by joint ventures between automakers and South Korean battery makers—and it wants the workers at those plants to be able to earn top UAW wages.

Fain said Tuesday that the slow pace of the negotiations with the Detroit Three could lead to the strike being escalated to include more factories if necessary—including more plants in Michigan.

The president has no formal role in the negotiations. But Adrian Mitchell, a GM employee in Belleville, said he thinks Biden would be better for the middle class than a second Trump term.

“He supports the people in regards to coming out here, showing solidarity with the UAW workers,” Mitchell said. “He’s always been for the middle class.”

Fain said the UAW won’t endorse any candidates until his workers get a fair contract.

READ MORE: Michigan Auto Workers Fight Back After ‘Getting Screwed’ by Detroit Three

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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