The strike by members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the United States against the so-called “Big Three” car makers — Ford, General Motors (GM) and Stellantis — has entered its third week.
The big business media failed in an attempt to pit President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump in a duel over the strike. While Biden ignored Trump when they visited car factories in Michigan, their addresses to auto workers exposed the stakes in this historic labour strike.
Biden joins picket line
Biden arrived in Michigan on September 26 and joined a UAW picket line — the first sitting US president to do so. Trump arrived the following day and visited a non-union plant, blasting the union’s leaders and declaring himself the saviour and only hope for auto workers.
Biden spoke to striking workers at GM's Willow Run Redistribution Center outside Metro Detroit. UAW members started their strike there a week after the union’s “Stand Up” strike began on September 15.
The UAW is in serious negotiations with Ford at the time of writing, after escalating its strike on September 22. It has promised to further escalate if there is no progress towards a settlement by September 29.
[Update: UAW President Shawn Fain announced on September 29 that the strike would spread to Ford and GM assembly plants, involving an additional 7000 union members and bringing the total striking workforce to 25,000.]
Most presidents and elected officials try to walk the middle line on labour disputes with capital. But Biden needs white- and blue-collar support if he has any hope of winning the 2024 presidential election.
There has been a rise in labour agitation across the country over the past few months. According to a BBC report, surveys suggest that a majority of Americans back the UAW's stand, and a recent Gallup poll found that 67% of the public support unions in general.
Therefore, Biden — the self-proclaimed “most pro-union president ever” — is orienting to this sentiment to try to win workers’ support.
Biden told the striking workers: "You made a lot of sacrifices. You gave up a lot when the companies were in trouble. Now, they're doing incredibly well. And guess what? You should be doing incredibly well, too.
"You deserve a significant raise you need and other benefits. Let's get back what we lost, okay? ... It's time for them to step up for us."
Biden later told them: "Wall Street didn't build the country … The middle class built the country, and unions built the middle class. That's a fact. Let's keep it going."
Trump visits non-union workplace
Trump — the Republican presidential candidate who claims to “have workers’ back” even as he attacks them — spoke at a non-union auto parts plant in Michigan’s Macomb County.
According to the Detroit News, 400-500 people were there.
CNN.com said the county is “historically a blue-collar stronghold”, with support among some unionised workers for the Republican Party. “Trump won it by about 11 percentage points in 2016 and 8 points in 2020.”
More recently it has become a battleground county. Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer won the county by 5% last year. The county is 78% white and 14% African American.
Trump gave a typical stump speech, attacking Biden and telling the crowd he is for the auto workers. Yet, he didn’t address the issues in the strike, including the impacts of electric vehicle (EV) production on jobs.
According to the New York Times, Trump spoke to 150 car parts workers at Drake Enterprises in Clinton, north of Detroit. The factory, which makes gear boxes, will be seriously impacted by the transition to EV manufacturing.
“If all the trucks and vehicles went electric, we would be scratching for something to do,” said Drake Enterprises president Nathan Stemle.
Brian Pannebecker, a staunch Trump supporter and president of Auto Workers for Trump, who rallied supporters — both union and non-union workers, including some UAW strikers — told CNN: “The people working on the floor — blue-collar, average guys working hourly for the Big Three — supported Donald Trump because they have traditional values, they own guns, they don’t want their gun rights taken away or restricted. They’re predominantly anti-abortion.”
Trump told the crowd, “I will not allow, under any circumstances, the American auto industry to die, I want it to thrive.”
Trump told the workers that EV jobs will move to China in a couple of years, so it won’t matter if a contract is negotiated. But, he said: “Get your union leaders to endorse me, and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Trump has a record of attacking union leaders, including UAW President Shawn Fain. He told Meet the Press recently that autoworkers "are being sold down the river by their leadership”.
Trump has also said, if reelected president, he will sack up to two million, mostly unionised, federal employees.
A UAW video about plant closures released on September 27 shows footage of Trump in 2017 promising autoworkers in Ohio he would save their jobs.
“But in 2019, GM closed its Lordstown Assembly plant in north-east Ohio, displacing thousands of workers there and helping lead to the union's 2019 strike against GM.”
Mike Booth, UAW Vice President and lead negotiator for GM, told the Detroit Free Press: “Where were [Trump’s] rallies for striking workers when we were on the picket line in 2019? Where are the jobs he promised to return to the US while on the campaign trail in 2015?
"The proof is in the pudding. His actions in office went to enrich the very elite few while the working class of America stagnated. This stunt is another ploy to pull the wool over the eyes of the working class. Again.”
UAW can and must win
Auto workers want a good agreement, but many don’t care for their union leaders or the Biden administration. Nor do many believe Trump’s bombastic rhetoric and his attacks on UAW President Shawn Fain.
Some workers told the media they felt Biden and Trump might politicise the strike, and urged them to "just stay away".
"We would much rather neither of them showed up," one worker told the BBC. "We don't want to divide people and when you bring politics into it, it's going to cause an argument."
Fain has a lot of rank-and-file support because of his transparency about negotiations and his aggressive stance towards the Big Three CEOs.
He invited Biden to visit UAW members and has sometimes been critical of Trump. He has also said the Biden administration hasn’t done enough for the strikers. So far, the UAW has not endorsed Biden’s reelection.
"Our message to anyone running for public office is that we're going to make endorsements with people that are there for us, and that's shown through your actions, not through words,” said Fain.
“Our invitation to anyone today, including the White House, to come and join our workers on the picket line, that's an open invitation for anybody. That's where you see support."
Fain updates UAW members on social media each Friday about the state of negotiations with each company and announces new measures to escalate the strike.
Wall Street sees the outcome of this class battle as crucial to its overall objective to make the US a “right to work”, low-paying, non-union paradise.
That’s why the UAW must — and can — win, however long it takes.