Biden faces pressure to join auto workers picket line as Trump sets sights on Detroit

White House won’t dispatch labour officials to Michigan, for now

Alex Woodward
Tuesday 19 September 2023 22:59 BST
Biden says record auto profits should mean 'record benefits' for striking workers

In a brief White House address to the nation, hours after thousands of American auto workers walked off the job to launch an historic strike, President Joe Biden urged Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers to continue negotiating with union leaders.

American auto companies have seen record profits “because of the extraordinary skill and sacrifices” of United Auto Workers union members, he said in brief remarks on 15 September, clearly standing alongside striking workers.

“Those record profits have not been shared fairly, in my view, with those workers,” he added. “Auto workers … deserve a contract that sustains them and the middle class.”

The president also announced that he would deploy adviser Gene Sperling and acting Labor Secretary Julie Su to Michigan, but the administration is now pausing those plans as members of Congress and labour advocates urge more support from the White House and the “most pro-union” president in the labour battle.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, is making his own plans to meet with striking workers at a rally in Detroit next week during the second debate among Republican presidential candidates – a visit rejected by labour leaders and Democratic officials.

“Donald Trump skipping the debate to rally with striking autoworkers is like a wolf showing up at a sheep convention promising ‘better wool,’” said Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow.

UAW president Shawn Fain, whose union represents nearly 150,000 workers, said in a statement that “every fiber” of the union “is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers.”

“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 [expect] them to solve the problems of the working class,” he added.

Several members of Michigan’s congressional delegation and state lawmakers have rallied with striking workers and other labour organisers and advocates in recent days, and both of the state’s senators have announced their support for strike demands.

“The right to strike is the single most powerful tool to fight corporate greed,” US Rep Rashida Tlaib, whose father was a member of the union as a Ford factory worker, said in remarks on the House floor earlier this month.

“The Big Three needs to value their own workers more than they value their own CEO pay increases. They need to do what’s right: they have record profits, and that should result in record contracts,” she said, echoing the demand among striking workers and labour leaders.

Mr Biden’s remarks from the White House two days later echoed that same statement.

“I do appreciate that the parties have been working around the clock,” he said. “But I believe they should go further to ensure record corporate profits mean record contracts for the UAW. I’m going to say that again: Record corporate profits – which they have – should be shared by record contracts for the UAW.”

Michigan officials who spoke to The Washington Post have said the president should meet with striking workers on picket lines, a visit that is also reportedly welcomed among UAW leadership, according to the newspaper.

The White House has declined to comment on calls for his presence at striking facilities, a move that would be an historic first among American presidents.

A statement from a White House official shared with The Independent said that Acting Secretary Su and Mr Sperling “have consistently engaged with the parties on the state of negotiations” but they will not be traveling to Michigan, for now.

“Given that negotiations are ongoing between the negotiating parties, it is most productive for Sperling and Su to continue their discussions from Washington and allow talks to move forward, and we’ll continue to assess travel timing based on the active state of negotiations,” according to the statement, reaffirming that the president “stands with UAW workers, and believes that record corporate profits must mean record contracts for the UAW.”

Administration officials have held several calls with union leaders, Michigan lawmakers, company executives and other parties, while the White House has opened an “inter-agency process” to study the strike’s economic impacts, according to Reuters.

United Auto Workers strike sign outside the Stellantis Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio on 19 September. (REUTERS)

Union workers at the nation’s Big Three automakers – Ford, General Motors and Stellantis-owned Chrysler – began a series of targeted strikes at three facilities at midnight on 14 September.

Union officials and auto companies remain far apart in negotiations over wages, benefits and worker schedules, among other issues. Leaders are asking for a 36 per cent pay increase over four years to match the rates of executive pay, as well as a reduced 32-hour workweek, a return to traditional pensions, the elimination of compensation tiers and a restoration of annual and automatic cost-of-living adjustments, among other benefits.

GM’s CEO Mary Barra, the highest-paid CEO among the three automakers, defended her $29m salary in a recent interview with CNN, adding that the company’s offer of a 20 per cent raise over four years is “very compelling.” Her earnings increased by 34 per cent within that same time frame.

“My compensation, 92 per cent of it is based on the performance of the company,” she said. “One of the strong aspects of the way our compensation for our represented employees is designed is not only are we putting a 20 per cent [wage] increase on the table. We have profit sharing. When the company does well, everybody does well.”

United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain. (REUTERS)

Republicans like Mr Trump have blamed the conditions that sparked the strike not on the automakers or company leadership but on electric car manufacturing, as GOP officials hope to drive a wedge between workers and a Democratic agenda to meet climate goals.

“The auto workers are being sold down the river by their leadership, and their leadership should endorse Trump,” the former president said in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “If somebody wants gasoline, if somebody wants all electric, they can do whatever they want, but they’re destroying the consumer and they’re destroying the auto workers.”

In remarks at a recent campaign event, Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is also seeking the Republican nomination for president, said that former President Ronald Reagan “gave us a great example” when he fired striking federal workers in the 1980s.

Nikki Haley, another candidate for the GOP’s nomination, blamed the strike on Mr Biden’s support for union organising.

“When you have a president that’s constantly saying go union, go union, this is what you get,” she told Fox News. “The unions get emboldened, and then they start asking for things that companies have a tough time doing.”

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