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President Joe Biden speaks to autoworkers outside General Motors Willow Run Redistribution Center in Belleville on Sept. 26, 2023. // Courtesy photo via Bridge Michigan

Biden backs higher pay for United Auto Workers during historic picket line visit


By Bridge Michigan

President Joe Biden stood with autoworkers and backed their demand for higher wages in a historic show of support for a labor strike with major implications for the Michigan economy.

“Wall Street didn’t build the country, the middle class built the country, and unions built the middle class,” Biden said via bullhorn in a brief speech outside General Motors Willow Run Redistribution Center in Belleville, where he was joined by United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain.

“So let’s keep going,” Biden added. “You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now.”

While the White House had previously said the president did not plan to interject himself in negotiations, Biden appeared to bolster the UAW’s demand for a 40 percent pay increase that automakers have so far resisted.

Asked if he supports the 40 percent pay hike, Biden responded with a “yes,” according to a pool reporter who joined the president at the event.

The picket line visit is believed to be the first by a sitting U.S. president and came one day after Ford announced it has suspended work on a $3.5 million battery factory in Marshall until the automaker is sure it can “competitively run the plant.”

Despite Ford’s pause, Michigan officials approved a $65 million grant to develop adjacent property. The state “fully” expects Ford will continue building the BlueOval facility but needs time to negotiate with the UAW, said Quentin Messer, president and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Biden was invited to the picket line by Fain, the outspoken union leader, in an effort to ramp up pressure on Ford, General Motors and Stellantis on the 12th day of a strike for higher wages, retirement benefits and more.

Fain thanked Biden for standing with the UAW during what he called “our generation’s defining moment.”

“We know the president will do right by the working class,” Fain said as Biden mingled with autoworkers. “And when we do right by the working class, you can leave the rest to us, because we’re going to take care of this business.”

Biden has called himself the “most pro-union president in American history” and has offered general support for the UAW, which began a targeted strike on Sept. 15 with workers walking off the job at three factories, including Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne.

The union last week expanded the strike to 38 parts facilities across 20 states.

Biden arrived at Detroit Metro Airport on Tuesday around 12:25 p.m. He was greeted on the tarmac by Fain and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, along with Democratic U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, Rashida Tlaib and Shri Thanedar.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was not part of the greeting line and is not expected to appear at any public events in coming days because her 83-year-old father has been hospitalized, her office confirmed.

But the second-term Democrat praised Biden in a statement for what she called a historic show of support for Michigan’s “world-class autoworkers.”

Presidential politics

Former President Donald Trump, who is seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Biden in 2024, argued his Democratic rival should have used the picket line visit to announce withdrawal of proposed vehicle emissions rulesexpected to force automakers to accelerate electric vehicle production.

“Anything else is just a feeble and insulting attempt to distract American labor from this vicious Biden betrayal,” Trump said in a statement, reiterating his claims that the shift to electric vehicles will “decimate” auto industry jobs.

Trump will return to Michigan himself on Wednesday for a campaign event in Metro Detroit as he continues to woo blue collar workers that helped him narrowly win the state in 2016.

The UAW backed Biden in 2020 but has not yet endorsed a candidate in the 2024 contest. Biden told reporters after Air Force One landed Tuesday that he’s “not worried” about who the union will endorse this cycle.

Autoworkers who spoke with Bridge ahead of the two presidential visits downplayed their significance.

“They’re not here for me. They’re here for the cameras and to get their face on TV,” said Jim Foley, a 54-year-old worker at Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant.

“I don’t know that there’s anyone in Washington that can relate to today’s autoworker,” he added. “They’re just so out of touch. Trump’s made billions and all he’s done is screw union workers in the past when they’ve done work for him.”

Keith Bees, a 53-year-old who works at the Willow Run facility that Biden visited Tuesday, was similarly unimpressed.

“I think I think they should stay out of it, and just let the workers get through this, and settle it and get the contract done,”  he told Bridge.

“President Biden is a champion for EVs, which is a detrimental component, as far as our jobs go,” Bees said. “And as far as Trump, he said things in the past about moving the companies to the South and paying them less.”

But Robert Earl, a 51-year-old who works at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, welcomed the attention from both Biden and Trump.

“This really is history in the making, so I really think it’s really good for them to come here,” Earl said, suggesting any potential talks between the president and auto executives could “help us out a lot.”

Bridge Michigan is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that provides passionate and rooted Michigan readers with honest, fact-driven journalism on the state’s diverse people, politics, and economy. We serve as your watchdog on the biggest issues impacting your daily life, giving you insightful coverage you can’t get anywhere else. Receive Bridge in your inbox for free by subscribing here.

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