President Biden is coming under increasing pressure from some Democratic lawmakers to do something none of his predecessors appear to have done in office: join striking workers walking a picket line.
As the United Auto Workers strike against all three of the nation’s biggest automakers, numerous Democrats in Michigan and around the country have expressed concern as Biden’s likely rival in next year’s election, former president Donald Trump, tries to woo union voters and weaken a crucial Democratic constituency by making his own visit to a strike site.
Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.
Trump is planning a rally in Detroit next week with union workers, including autoworkers, during the next GOP primary debate, although it is unclear if he will also visit the picket line, according to one person familiar with campaign planning, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the plans.
Democrats want Biden to go underscore the parties’ differences on labor issues.
“It would send a very strong message that Democrats stand for working people – I really do feel Biden should show up, and show up soon,” said Michigan state Rep. Mike McFall, a first-term Democrat whose district includes part of Detroit. “I am quite worried about Trump showing up, and what that would mean for our party in November.”
Biden has applauded the UAW’s targeted strike against Detroit’s Big Three manufacturers, and on Friday called on General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis to improve their wage proposals to the union. The president’s aides believe he has already gone above and beyond backing labor through numerous executive orders and legislation aimed at bolstering worker outcomes. And yet the labor action has posed a political puzzle for the president, who must figure out how far to go to stand with the UAW workers.
The White House declined to comment when asked if Biden is weighing a visit to the picket line. But in interviews with The Washington Post, more than a half-dozen Democrats in Congress and in the Michigan state legislature said he should go. UAW leadership has also communicated to the White House that a presidential visit would be welcomed, although it has not sent a formal invitation, according to two people with knowledge of internal discussions and a UAW official, all three of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
“I know the UAW family would love the most powerful person in the world – the president of the United States – to come and hold a sign in solidarity with them. But I hope he does it in a way where he actually sits down and has a roundtable with some key people, and really listens to how hard it’s been,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). “Of course, the president coming would be extremely important. But people want someone who’s advocating for them and demanding a form of economic justice for them and their families – to come in solidarity.”
Several members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and John Fetterman (D-Pa.) have joined a UAW picket since the strike began at midnight Friday morning.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who co-authored an op-ed with UAW President Shawn Fain on the strike and joined striking workers on Monday in Michigan and Ohio, said in a statement: “It would be great for President Biden to go as well, as he has been the most pro-union president in decades.”
Asked about calls for Biden to join the picket line, White House spokeswoman Robyn Patterson pointed to the president’s prior statements backing the union. Biden on Friday said the automakers “should go further to make sure record corporate profits mean record contracts,” echoing the UAW’s comments. Biden has appointed staunch labor allies to the National Labor Relations Board and federal judiciary, and provisions in a 2021 law Biden backed gave workers greater bargaining power and supercharged unionization efforts nationwide.
“There’s no question the President stands with UAW workers,” Patterson said by email. “His statement Friday made that crystal clear.”
Still, Trump’s visit to woo blue collar workers could complicate the White House’s political calculus. The former president has eroded labor support for Democrats in the Rust Belt, and could try to make further inroads ahead of the 2024 election. Trump’s planned Detroit trip was first reported by the New York Times on Monday.
As a matter of policy, experts agree there is no doubt that Biden has done much more to back unions. Trump enacted numerous policies detested by organized labor, weakened the NLRB and approved legislation centered on lower corporate taxes. And Trump has publicly feuded with Fain, ridiculing the union leader and urging union members not to pay dues. In an interview with NBC News that aired Sunday on “Meet the Press,” Trump said autoworkers were “being sold down the river by their leadership, and their leadership should endorse Trump,” a sentiment he reiterated in a post on Truth Social, the social media network he owns.
Some Michigan Democrats expressed alarm about the notion that Trump could visit a picket line before Biden.
“It would get a bunch of news coverage and free media for Trump. We do not need that,” said state Rep. Donavan McKinney, who referred to the prospect as “terrible.”
“President Biden can take over the narrative and show that the administration, and Democrats as a whole, are supporting their biggest base, which are unions and the working class,” McKinney said. “It would speak volumes … What can we do to get Biden here?”
State Rep. Jason Morgan added: “I would love to see Biden visit the picket line here in Michigan … There is tremendous support for our unions today, and there is no reason not to join our workers in demanding better wages and better working conditions.”
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has worked for Biden, said polling suggests young people, and Black voters particularly, back the UAW and that Biden needs both to win in Michigan in 2024.
“Voters are very supportive of the strike and very supportive of the organizing going on – they really agree with the basic premise that CEOs are hoarding the money and that the prosperity should be spared,” Lake said. “I think it’s a great idea for him to go.”
Not all Democrats think Biden should rush, though.
James Blanchard, who served as the Democratic governor of Michigan from 1983 to 1991, said Biden has made his position on the UAW strike “very clear” and that walking the picket line could set a precedent in which the president is expected to walk many more.
“I’m not sure the president should be marching a picket line – you start one, and you have to do the others. He’s weighed in very strongly for the UAW workers,” Blanchard said.
Some conservatives also balked at the prospect of the president so visibly taking sides. Traditionally, presidents have sought to play neutral mediator where possible. (Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, said Biden would likely be the first president in a century to join a picket line.)
“You’re putting the full weight of the federal government on one side of a private dispute, and that’s usually not done because we have a vision of fairness in the country and you don’t put your thumb on the scale,” said Doug Holtz-Eakin, a GOP policy analyst. “It is so far over the line people have lost sight of the boundaries. I think it’s really wrong.”
Still, some workers said they’d welcome Biden.
Sharifia Fambro, 52, a striking worker at the Ford plant in Wayne, Mich., who makes $19.10 an hour, said she hopes Biden shows up to the picket line to “show his solidarity with the UAW.” Fambro, who installs fascias onto Bronco vehicles, added that she believes it would help elevate workers’ cause to have the president “show that he knows what we’re going through.”
– – –
Lauren Kaori Gurley contributed to this report.