BELLEVILLE, Michigan, Sept 26 (Reuters) – President Joe Biden joined striking auto workers in Michigan on Tuesday, backing their demand for a 40% pay raise and telling them they deserve “much” more than they are getting.
Biden’s appearance, the first visit by a US president to striking workers in modern history, comes a day before Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump addresses Garth workers in Michigan. Rare events highlight the importance of union support in the 2024 presidential election, even though unions represent a small portion of the American workforce.
Biden, a Democrat, visited Belleville, Michigan, a parts distribution center owned by General Motors ( GM.N ), and joined dozens of pickets outside. “Companies were in trouble, and now they’re doing incredibly well. And guess what? You have to do incredibly well, too,” Biden said through a bullhorn. “Stick with it.”
He points to the 2009 bailout of U.S. automakers that included wage cuts. “You deserve what you’ve earned. You’ve earned more than you’re getting now,” he said.
Asked if he supported the 40% raise the union had asked for, Biden simply said, “Yes.”
Flanked by Secret Service agents, Biden exchanged fist bumps and took selfies with the crowd after his speech as the John Mellencamp song “Small Town” played in the background.
Trump will address hundreds of workers at an auto supplier meeting in suburban Detroit on Wednesday. According to a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, the supplier, Drake Enterprises, is a non-union manufacturer. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Republicans believe that Biden’s push to electrify the U.S. vehicle fleet by offering billions of dollars in tax breaks on EV production has not caught on with auto workers.
In a statement on Tuesday, Trump accused Biden of “stabbing” auto workers in the back. He said Biden’s EV mandate would “destroy” the U.S. auto industry and cost “thousands of auto workers their jobs.”
UAW President Sean Fine greeted Biden at the airport and presented the president with a black UAW baseball cap. He also joined Biden in the picketing.
Calling Biden’s arrival a “historic moment in time,” Fine accused CEOs of taking profits and leaving workers to “scramble for scraps.” “Thank you, Mr. President, for standing up with us,” Fine said. “We know the president will do right by the working class.”
The UAW encouraged non-UAW workers to join local pickets in support of the “historic” presidential visit. A source added that the union had not been contacted by Trump’s visit and that Fine did not plan to attend the event.
To date, the UAW has declined to endorse a 2024 presidential candidate, making it the only major union not to endorse Biden. Both candidates are expected to sharpen their 2024 campaign message in Michigan. Asked what it would take for the UAW to support Biden, the president said he didn’t care.
“We’re a long way from a general election, but it sure feels like a general election,” said Dave Urban, a Republican strategist who previously worked for Trump.
This month UAW workers launched targeted strikes against GM, Ford ( FN ) and Chrysler parent Stellantis ( STLAM.MI ), demanding higher CEO pay, shorter work weeks and wage increases as the industry moves toward safety vehicles.
The White House is holding discussions about ways to blunt any economic downturn with a full walkout.
Both the Detroit Three and the UAW play a large role in federal policy decisions.
Automakers are counting on Washington for billions in subsidies for electric-vehicle production and are negotiating with the Biden administration on future emissions rules, which the industry hopes will force a shift to EVs. Meanwhile, the union worries that the shift to EVs could mean job losses because these vehicles require fewer parts to produce.
Only 10.1% of American workers were union members in 2022, but they have outstripped political influence as states where they are strong swing Democratic to Republican, and their grassroots networks have a powerful influence on working-class votes.
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The auto industry and its labor movement are deeply intertwined with politics and elections in Michigan and other Midwestern states.
In 2016, he won the support of union members to a level no Republican had achieved since Ronald Reagan, helping him win key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Biden rebounded with unions in 2020, with a roughly 16-percentage-point advantage as he reclaimed so-called Rust Belt states that have suffered decades of job losses as companies embraced lower-cost, mostly union-free locations. He won Michigan in 2020 by about 154,000 votes.
In Michigan, Trump will criticize Biden’s economic policies and incentives to promote EVs, and will do a better job protecting blue-collar workers if he is re-elected, said Jason Miller, a Trump adviser.
Labor experts said Trump is bent on driving a wedge between union members and their leaders, who have criticized the former president’s labor policies during his tenure.
Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist, said it was important for Biden to make the trip to Michigan to ensure that Trump does not rewrite history.
“Biden says we’re not going to let you go in there and lie to people and try to change the conversation,” Finney said.
Historians said Biden’s visit to Michigan represents the first time a sitting president has shown support for striking coal workers since Theodore Roosevelt invited striking coal workers to the White House in 1902.
Jeff Mason in Belleville, Michigan and Nandita Bose in Washington, Jared Renshaw in Philadelphia and Nathan Lane in Wilton, Connecticut Additional reporting by David Shepherdson in Washington Heather Timmons, Nick Zieminski and Matthew Lewis.
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