Biden loves to talk about unions. But the autoworkers are withholding their affection
Updated September 13, 2023 at 3:30 PM ET
President Biden likes to talk about how he is a union guy — and a car guy. But he hasn't had a lot to say so far about the fact that nearly 150,000 workers could go on strike later this week unless there's a breakthrough in talks between the United Auto Workers union and Detroit carmakers.
What he did say about the negotiations kicked up dust. He told reporters traveling with him on Labor Day that he didn't think a strike would happen.
For the union, the option of striking is its leverage in these talks, and UAW President Shawn Fain was quick with a rebuke.
"I think a strike can reaffirm to him of where the working-class people in this country stand. And, you know, it's time for politicians in this country to pick a side," Fain said in an interview with CNBC.
"Either you stand for a billionaire class where everybody else gets left behind, or you stand for the working class."
The White House says Biden was just being optimistic
The White House has said Biden was simply expressing optimism rather than predicting an outcome.
"He stands with UAW workers," said Gene Sperling, a top economic adviser to Biden and his point person on these talks.
"But you present a situation like this to him? Yeah, he's going to look at it optimistically because he wants the parties to believe that they can find that win-win opportunity," Sperling told NPR.
Sperling says the president wasn't making a prediction and certainly wasn't trying to undermine the union.
Biden called Fain on Labor Day, and later called executives from the Big 3 automakers to "encourage more forward-leaning offers," Jared Bernstein, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters on Wednesday.
But Bernstein side-stepped a question about whether Biden would support the workers if they strike. "I'm going to leave it at: he believes the autoworkers deserve a contract that sustains middle-class jobs, and he wants the parties to stay at the table to work around the clock to get a win-win agreement. And he's encouraged the parties to do that," Bernstein said.
The UAW is not a fan of Biden's push for electric vehicles
For Biden, who has built his political brand on siding with the working class, the looming strike is a moment of potential political peril.
The union is not enthused about Biden's emphasis on electric vehicles, worried it could lead to a further erosion of the economic standing of autoworkers.
His landmark climate legislation, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, includes huge financial incentives for electric cars, and Biden has said he wants them to be made by people with well-paying union jobs. But the administration hasn't been able to lock that in as a requirement as it begins to distribute billions of dollars in grants.
Also, building an electric vehicle requires fewer workers than building a traditional car, and the batteries can be made in nonunion factories or at much-lower wages. The shift threatens to cause a rift between autoworkers and their longtime allies in the Democratic Party.
So what Biden says during these talks will be closely parsed by union members, said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich.
"These negotiations are where the rubber hits the road," Dingell said in an interview.
She compared the situation to what she saw in the 2016 presidential election, when then-candidate Donald Trump won Michigan in part because of his message to workers hurt by free trade agreements.
"Donald Trump didn't deliver on trade, but he talked about trade. He showed an empathy for it," Dingell said.
"So it's going to be very important that President Biden show them that he is paying attention, that he does care, that he wants to protect their jobs," she said.
If Biden is less than full-throated in his support, Trump stands to make gains
Most of the United States' biggest labor unions have already endorsed Biden's reelection bid. But not the United Auto Workers. And that lack of an endorsement is hanging over the contract talks.
"The one thing we have made clear is that our endorsements are going to be earned and not freely given. That's one thing we're doing differently. And there's a lot of work left to be done here," Fain told MSNBC.
Fain went on to say he's no fan of Trump as the former president runs for president once again. But Trump is actively courting autoworkers by criticizing the move to electric vehicles. In 2016, he was able to peel away a significant share of votes from rank-and-file union members.
Cedric de Leon, a professor who specializes in labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said Biden needs to side with the workers in these talks — and be vocal about it — to hold their support.
"I know who will take advantage of it if he isn't full-throated on behalf of workers: Trump will," de Leon said.
And the stakes are far bigger than Biden earning the UAW's endorsement, de Leon said. Millions of union workers in America are watching to see how this goes. And they are reliable voters, many of whom live in swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
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