President Joe Biden has joined a picket line alongside striking autoworkers in Michigan, who walked off the job nearly two weeks ago in the first job stoppage to affect all three major car manufacturers in the United States.
Flanked by workers and speaking on a bullhorn outside an auto plant west of Detroit, Biden called for a “significant raise” for the employees. He is believed to be the first sitting president in recent history to join a picket line.
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“You made a lot of sacrifices, gave up a lot, and the companies were in trouble,” Biden said, referring to the 2008 financial crisis when US car manufacturers were on the verge of bankruptcy.
“Now they’re doing incredibly well. And guess what? You should be doing incredibly well.”
Biden has said supporting US workers remains a key plank of his economic policies.
Shawn Fain, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union president, addressed workers after Biden on Tuesday, stressing the importance of their labour and denouncing “corporate greed”.
“We’re the people that make the world run. It’s not the billionaire class, not the elite few. It’s the working class of the billions of people who have been left behind. That’s what this battle is about,” Fain said.
The UAW launched the partial, coordinated strike earlier this month. Thousands of workers across 20 states have walked off the job to push for wage increases, shorter hours and improved retirement benefits.
Lee Maybanks, a striking auto worker at Ford, told Al Jazeera that Biden’s appearance was “very important”.
“There are so many families involved. There are so many people affected by this,” Maybanks said.
Former President Donald Trump, who is leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination, is also set to visit Michigan and address workers later this week in a push to court union members.
The UAW is not involved in Trump’s event, the Reuters news agency reported.
“There definitely needs to be more of a light shined on the auto industry,” UAW member Brandon Cappelletty, 25, told Reuters last week from the picket line. “The politicians need to back us a lot more.”
This is the first strike to simultaneously target Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, the main US car manufacturers, known as the Big Three.
The UAW expanded the strike to more workers and plants last week but stopped short of calling for a full strike.
On Friday, UAW President Fain said “real progress” had been made with one of the automakers, Ford.
“We still have serious issues to work through, but we do want to recognise that Ford is showing that they are serious about reaching a deal,” Fain said. “At GM and Stellantis, it’s a different story.”
Union leaders have traditionally sided with Democrats, but Trump made gains amongst workers in the 2016 elections after criticising free trade deals and promising to bring back manufacturing jobs — a platform that helped him win key states in the Midwest.
But in the 2020 elections, Biden, a Democrat, won back Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, prevailing over Trump. The three swing states will likely play an outsized role in the 2024 race, which is expected to be a rematch between the current and former presidents.
In their current presidential campaigns, Trump and other Republicans have taken aim at Biden’s environmental push for electric vehicles (EVs), arguing that it is harming US workers and companies.
“Bidenflation and Biden’s insane EV mandate have put the state of Michigan and the critical [constituency] of working middle-class voters in Michigan in play,” said Jason Miller, a senior Trump adviser, told Reuters.
Reporting from southeast Michigan, Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher said Biden’s visit comes as the president is looking to avert an extended strike that could hurt the economy “and by extension his re-election chances”.
But, Fisher explained, Biden’s appearance on the picket line is “significant”.
“For the White House that touts Joe Biden as being the most pro-union person ever to sit in the Oval Office, he will be the first president in living memory to join pickets on the strike line at one of the Big Three automakers here,” Fisher said.
He added that workers are looking for guarantees of future job protection with the emergence of electric vehicles, the manufacturing of which requires fewer labourers.
Before Biden’s speech, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre called the president’s visit to Michigan “historic”.
She also appeared to hit out at Republicans’ criticism of the White House’s support for the transition to electric vehicles, saying that Biden wants to make sure that the “cars of the future will be built in America by unionised American workers”.
“Today is about the autoworkers,” Jean-Pierre said. “That is what today is about. It’s about standing in solidarity with the union union members.”
Biden previously called for a win-win resolution to the dispute, urging car companies to share their “record profits” with workers.
He reprised that call in his remarks on the picket line on Tuesday, stressing that the middle class — not Wall Street — built the country.
“You deserved what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now,” he told workers.