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Biden makes historic visit to metro Detroit picket line to rally with striking auto workers

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Biden makes historic visit to metro Detroit picket line to rally with striking auto workers

Sep 26, 2023 | 5:55 pm ET
By Lily Guiney
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Biden makes historic visit to metro Detroit picket line to rally with striking auto workers
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President Joe Biden, alongside UAW President Shawn Fain, speaks on the UAW picket line at Willow Run Redistribution Center in Belleville, Mich., Sept. 26, 2023 | White House photo

Updated, 9:04 p.m. 9/26/23

In the midst of ongoing negotiations between striking auto workers and Detroit’s Big Three manufacturers, President Joe Biden on Tuesday made an appearance on the picket line in Belleville.

Speaking to picketers from UAW Local 174 at Willow Run Redistribution Center in metro Detroit, Biden said that unions “saved the automobile industry” in times of recession and helped establish the American middle class. 

“Wall Street didn’t build the country; the middle class built the country,” Biden said. “And unions built the middle class.” 

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Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, the three manufacturers impacted by the strike of United Auto Workers (UAW) employees, failed to reach a contract agreement with the UAW by the original deadline on Sept. 15. Among other demands, UAW members are hoping to secure a new contract with double-digit pay raises and the elimination of worker tiers. 

Workers at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, the Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex in Ohio, and General Motors’ Wentzville Assembly in Missouri were the first facilities called to strike, and have since been joined by 38 more Stellantis and GM auto parts plants that were called to strike after an agreement was not reached by Friday. 

Biden’s visit, thought to be the first time in modern history that a sitting president has visited an active strike, comes after he called upon both the union and the manufacturers to “forge a fair agreement” ahead of the first deadline. 

“I marched in a lot of UAW picket lines when I was a senator — since 1973 — but, I tell you what, it’s the first time I’ve ever done it as president,” Biden told workers.

Biden was joined by UAW President Shawn Fain, who invited the Democratic president and addressed the crowd after Biden’s remarks.

“And so, today, I just want to take a moment to stand with all of you, with our president and say thank you to the president.  Thank you, Mr. President, for coming,” Fain said. “Thank you for coming to stand up with us in our generation’s defining moment.”

Fain announced last week that more UAW-staffed plants will continue to be called upon to join the strike if demands aren’t met. He said that automakers’ record profits call for a proportionate increase in pay and benefits for workers. 

“The CEOs think the future belongs to them,” Fain said. “Today belongs to the auto workers in the working class.”

Biden agreed. 

“You deserve what you’ve earned,” Biden said, “and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than what you’re getting paid now.”

Other labor leaders spoke in support of Biden’s visit, including national AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, who said in a statement that Biden is “the most pro-union president in history.” 

“Working people know [Biden] has our backs every day and that he understands that UAW members’ fight for a fair contract is deeply connected to the struggle over the soul of our country,” Shuler said. “Together, we’re organized to fight back against the corporate CEOs who have rigged the system against working people for far too long.”

Schuler is set to visit a Michigan picket line on Wednesday.

Just hours before Biden touched down in Detroit, he received a key endorsement for his 2024 reelection campaign from the United Farm Workers (UFW), which praised his record on labor issues from COVID-19 relief for agricultural workers to beginning the process of improving working conditions for farm workers. 

The campaign of 2024 Republican frontrunner and Biden’s presumptive opponent, former President Donald Trump, said in a statement that the visit to the picket line was “nothing more than a PR stunt” designed to distract Americans from “disastrous Bidenomics.” 

“The fact is that President Trump will be the nominee and will beat Biden because he’s the only person who can supercharge the economy, secure our border, and safeguard our communities,” the statement read. 

 

Trump is slated to make his own Michigan visit tomorrow, skipping the second GOP presidential debate to rally at a non-union auto parts manufacturing plant in Macomb County. Both Biden’s campaign and Fain himself have spoken out against Trump’s appearance, after Trump criticized Fain for “not doing a good job” of representing UAW workers. 

“Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers,” UAW President Shawn Fain said in an earlier statement

While the UAW has yet to endorse a 2024 presidential candidate, Michigan’s significance as both a battleground state and the heart of the auto industry make the strike of immense political importance to candidates on both sides of the aisle. 

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who was unable to join Biden, said in a statement that his visit was “historic” and represented a remarkable commitment to the American workforce.

“The president is committed to strengthening our workforce and economy by bringing jobs home from overseas, reversing trends of the previous administration that lost jobs,” Whitmer said. “Since taking office, we’ve announced 36,000 auto jobs with help from President Biden’s investments, proving it’s possible to support working men and women, while also securing record-breaking economic development deals that will guarantee jobs and investment for decades.”  

Biden was joined on his trip to Michigan by acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and National Economic Council Director Lael Brainard and was greeted at Detroit Wayne Metropolitan Airport by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor), Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) and Shri Thanedar (D-Detroit). 

Biden was asked by a reporter if UAW workers deserve the 40% raise they’ve demanded in negotiations, to which he responded, “Yes! Yes, I think they should be able to bargain for that.”

In his earlier remarks, Biden referenced when the domestic auto industry faltered during the early 2000s and that “the fact of the matter is that you guys, the UAW — you saved the automobile industry back in 2008 and before. You made a lot of sacrifices. You gave up a lot.

“And the companies were in trouble,” he said. “But now they’re doing incredibly well.  And guess what?  You should be doing incredibly well too.  It’s a simple proposition.”

Fain said he knew that Biden would “do right by the working class.”

“This industry is of our making,” Fain said. “When we withhold our labor, we can unmake it.”