‘Let’s get back what we lost’

Joe Biden became the first sitting US president to appear on a picket line on Tuesday, joining a protest outside a Michigan car plant in solidarity with striking members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, which is locked in an escalating dispute with America’s three biggest carmakers.

The UAW president, Shawn Fain, was the first to greet Biden after he arrived in Michigan on Air Force One, and he joined him in the presidential limousine for a ride to the picket line.

Related: It’s fantastic that Biden is joining the UAW picket line. But he should go further

“The fact of the matter is you guys – the UAW – you saved the automobile industry back in 2008 and before. You made a lot of sacrifices, gave up a lot. The companies were in trouble. Now they are doing incredibly well and guess what? You should be doing incredibly well too,” Biden said, addressing the cheering crowd through a bullhorn.

“You deserve a significant raise and other benefits. Let’s get back what we lost,” said Biden.

“Today, the enemy isn’t some foreign company miles away. It’s right here in our own area – it’s corporate greed,” Fain said as Biden, wearing a UAW baseball cap with the words “Union Yes” on the side, looked on. Biden later put his arm around one of the red T-shirt-wearing UAW strikers.

“And the weapon we produce to fight that enemy is the liberators, the true liberators – it’s the working-class people,” Fain added.

Standing on the picket line Larry Hearn, a 61-year-old UAW committee member, called Biden’s a “monumental and history-making” visit.

“We’re out here on the frontline taking the brunt for everybody, losing money,” Hearn said. “The support feels good. “We don’t need him to get in our business and secure us a contract, but his support is enough, it hits home with people.”

Biden bills himself as the most pro-union president in history. No other sitting president has joined a picket line, according to Nelson Lichtenstein, a longtime labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“This is genuinely new – I don’t think it’s ever happened before, a president on a picket line,” Lichtenstein told the Guardian. “Candidates do it frequently and prominent senators, but not a president.”

The US president’s visit comes a day before Donald Trump, his expected Republican opponent in next year’s poll, visits Detroit – the historic centre of the US car industry – to address workers in different industries in his own pitch for the strikers’ support.

Trump, who won Michigan with the help of union members’ support in his 2016 election victory over Hillary Clinton before losing it four years later in his defeat to Biden, is not expected to visit a picket line.

“Crooked Joe Biden, who is killing the United Autoworkers with his WEAK stance on China and his ridiculous insistence on All Electric Cars, every one of which will be made in China, saw that I was going to Michigan this week (Wednesday!), so the Fascists in the White House just announced he would go there tomorrow,” Trump posted on his Truth Social website this week.

Biden voiced support for the strike by Ford, General Motors and Stellantis workers, which was entering its 12th day on Tuesday, when it started on 15 September and had announced he was dispatching his labour secretary, Julie Su, and Gene Sperling, a senior White House adviser, to help the union reach a settlement with company bosses.

That plan was withdrawn after criticism from Fain, who has also flatly rejected Trump’s efforts at wooing the support of union members.

Trump, who won significant union support in 2016 and needs to regain it if he is to prevail next year, has said workers are being betrayed by their leadership and also by Biden’s environmentally friendly policy of encouraging the three American car giants to convert to making electric vehicles.

The UAW has withheld an endorsement of Biden so far, but union leadership has been critical of Trump, who has sought to capitalize on the strike and siphon support from the majority Democratic unions. Trump visits a non-union shop tomorrow, which was not lost on those outside the Wayne plant.

“As long as Biden is going to come here then do something to help working people when he returns to Washington, then he is welcome,” said Walter Robinson, a 57-year-old quality inspector. “He is going to have to do that if he wants our endorsement. I think he will.”

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