Striking Autoworkers Are Cool to Biden's Embrace

12:29 18.09.2023 - The New York Times

President Biden, who calls himself the most pro-union president ever and has sided with striking United Auto Workers - calling for "record contracts" as the union walked out on Friday - has yet to convince many rank-and-file U.A.W. members that his sentiments are more than just nice-sounding words.

That was the prevailing view in interviews with two dozen striking workers for Ford and Jeep in Michigan and Ohio this weekend. Many, including some who voted for him, said inflation had so undercut their wages that they felt pushed out of the middle class, laying the blame with Mr. Biden.

Despite the president's "middle class Joe" persona, and his potential 2024 rival Donald J. Trump's record and rhetoric undermining unions, many autoworkers were not convinced that the current Oval Office occupant was the one more forcefully on their side.

"I can't tell when he speaks to the public if he's being told to say it or if he's genuinely saying it," Jennifer Banks, a striking worker, said of Mr. Biden's pro-union remarks on Friday during which he unequivocally backed the U.A.W.

Ms. Banks, a 29-year Ford employee, was picketing on Saturday at the company's vast Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne. A sign outside Gate 2 warned, "Absolutely no foreign vehicles allowed!"

The ambivalence toward Mr. Biden underscores an ongoing challenge to his re-election, as Democrats try to stanch any more bleeding of blue-collar support after three years of inflation and high interest rates.

Mr. Trump, in the meantime, has continued to appeal to union voters, renewing his attacks on China, immigrants and liberal priorities like renewable energy, issues that fueled his historically large inroads with white, working-class voters in 2016 and 2020.

Ms. Banks, 50, a political independent who voted for Mr. Trump in 2020, said that in a potential rematch between him and Mr. Biden she would be torn, because she doesn't like much of what Republicans stand for.

"I think our president is not as strong a president as we need," she said. "I'm hoping somebody can replace him. I hope it doesn't leave me no choice but to vote the other way."

An hour's drive south of Wayne, Beverly Brown was the strike captain for a team of workers who attach the hoods to Jeeps at the massive Toledo Assembly Complex in Ohio. "No Justice, No Jeeps" was written on a vehicle's window. Ms. Brown, 65, voted for Mr. Biden but said that when it came to backing working people, "I don't think he's doing enough." Neither did she view Mr. Trump as an ally of working people, saying, "Everything he's done up until now proves otherwise: He's for the rich."

On Friday, 13,000 workers at three Midwest plants, owned by Ford, General Motors and Stellantis - the parent of Jeep and Chrysler - walked out in what the U.A.W. called a targeted strike, demanding nearly 40 percent raises over four years, the end of a two-tier system in which newer workers get lower pay, and the restoration of benefits that the union gave up during the Great Recession in 2008.

Despite Mr. Biden's decades-long emphasis of his roots in Scranton, Pa., and his well-honed brand as a hero for the middle class, strikers did not necessarily see him as their champion. Their wages, which range from $18 to $32 an hour, have eroded significantly amid rising prices, many said, with an apparent political cost to the White House.

A lengthy strike that reduces the supply of cars and drives up prices could force the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates high, with repercussions for Mr. Biden's re-election.

"Back when I hired in here, there was a middle class," Garth Potrykus, 68, a longtime electrician in the Ford plant, said. "The middle class - they're gone."

Ford, he said, hires waves of temporary workers who earn below fast-food wages. "They might hang around two or three weeks, then they go down to McDonald's and they make more money," he said. "How are those people ever going to afford the, quote, American dream?"

Mr. Biden has centered his re-election campaign around the idea of "Bidenomics," his record of infrastructure, high tech and clean energy spending aimed at creating good industrial jobs and shrinking income inequality. Despite those broad policies, Mr. Potrykus, eyeing his own expenses, said he didn't see either Democrats or Republicans as fighting for the working class.

"I don't think either party is really interested in that," he said. "It's a war on us now. You've got the super rich and then you've got the poor."

That many union workers don't automatically align with Democrats and reject Republicans, who often support policies that suppress blue-collar pay, has confounded Democratic strategists since at least the era of the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s. Large numbers of Republicans in Congress last year sponsored legislation to weaken organized labor by allowing workers in all 50 states to opt out of union dues.

Mr. Trump, who also supports "right to work" laws, has a mixed record on organized labor. In office, he renegotiated a North American trade deal to give more protections to American workers. But lately he has attacked U.A.W. leadership, saying in an interview broadcast Sunday that its leaders, along with the carmakers and the Biden administration, were in cahoots to force a transition to electric vehicles made in China.

While union leaders almost universally endorse Democrats for president because of their pro-labor agendas, a sizable rank-and-file contingent votes Republican, often over conservative social issues.

In 2020, Mr. Trump won about four in 10 voters in union households, according to exit polls and an internal survey by the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Michael Podhorzer, a former longtime A.F.L.-C.I.O. political director, said that was hardly surprising. "The demographics of union members are the ones who've been trending away from Democrats for quite some time," he said. This is particularly true of industrial unions.

Mr. Trump emphasized "a set of issues that union members never agreed with Democrats on," most prominently immigration, Mr. Podhorzer added. Despite the trend, union members still tend to vote five to 10 points more Democratic than similar voters who are not in unions, he said.

"People don't join unions because they're Democrats or liberals,'' Mr. Podhorzer said. "People are in unions because that's where they work." It's misguided to expect that "they should be voting like MoveOn members," he added, referring to the progressive policy group and political action committee.

But the union's membership is not monolithic in its voting patterns. Younger strikers, and particularly nonwhite U.A.W. members, were not as critical of Mr. Biden. Anthony Thompson, 54, said that he, too, struggled to make ends meet, in part because his wife, Uleana, has lupus and medical costs mean the family ends up living paycheck to paycheck.

But Mr. Thompson, who joined Ford two years ago and has worked up to $20 an hour, did not blame the president. "I would say he's doing the best under the circumstances that he can,'' Mr. Thompson said.

Jason Grammer-Gold, 42, a striker at Jeep, said that Mr. Trump's promises to rebuild the industrial heartland "was all talk" and that he left office with little to show for it.

"I don't feel Trump is for the working American at all," he said. "His presidency was to get his taxes down." Mr. Grammer-Gold said that he, his husband and their adopted child recently moved from Ohio across the border to Michigan to live in a state where Democrats control government. "Republicans are passing tons of anti-gay laws," he said.

Outside Gate 2 at the Jeep plant, two longtime workers who met on the strike line, Ronald Flores and Frank Luvinski, each said their pay didn't go as far as it used to, but they had opposite views of Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump.

"In 2018, I felt like I had finally gotten ahead," Mr. Luvinski, 52, a Trump supporter, said. "I finally had money in my bank account. And now, I make more money than ever, and I have less. My energy bill just doubled in June."

Across the street, Mr. Flores, 56, had parked his white Jeep Gladiator pickup. "We built that right on the line," he said. Peeling back a piece of interior carpet, he showed where co-workers signed their names on painted steel.

Mr. Flores's grandfather, son and multiple cousins have been union autoworkers, jobs that helped them build comfortable lives. He drew an analogy between his employer, whom he respects, his truck and Mr. Trump's campaign promises.

"If you say you want to make something great again, when you leave, greatness should continue," he said. "You leave a legacy. Like Jeep has a legacy. The brand speaks for itself."

/ Monday, September 18, 2023, 12:29 PM /

themes:  Immigrants  War  Ohio  China  Michigan

Biden Defends Striking Autoworkers: They Deserve a 'Fair Share'

President Biden forcefully sided with the striking United Auto Workers on Friday, dispatching two of his top aides to Detroit and calling for the three biggest American car companies to share their profits with employees whose wages and benefits he said have been unfairly eroded for years.

In brief remarks from the White House hours after the union began what they called a targeted strike, Mr. Biden acknowledged that the automakers had made "significant offers" during contract negotiations, but he left no doubt his intention to make good on a 2020 promise to always have the backs of unions.

"Over generations, autoworkers sacrificed so much to keep the industry alive and strong, especially the economic crisis and the pandemic," Mr. Biden said. "Workers deserve a fair share of the benefits they helped create."

Mr. Biden said that Julie Su, the acting secretary of labor, and Gene Sperling, a top White House economic adviser, would go to Michigan immediately to try to bring both sides back to the bargaining table. But he said the automakers "should go further to ensure record corporate profits mean record contracts for the U.A.W."

For decades, Mr. Biden has been an unapologetic backer of unions who rejects even the approach of some Democrats when it comes to balancing the interests of corporate America and the labor movement.

During the past several years, he has helped nurture what polls suggest is a resurgence of support for unions, as younger Americans in new-economy jobs push for the right to organize at the workplace. Mr. Biden declares that "unions built the middle class" in virtually every speech he delivers.

"That was most pro-union statement from a White House in decades, if not longer," Eddie Vale, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked for years at the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said after the president's remarks.

The president's decision to weigh in on the side of the union without much reservation will most likely to draw fierce criticism from different quarters. Earlier in the day - even before the president's White House comments - Suzanne P. Clark, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, issued a searing statement blaming the strike on Mr. Biden for "promoting unionization at all costs."

After Mr. Biden's remarks, Neil Bradley, the group's top lobbyist in Washington, said the president's message and the pro-union policies his administration has pursued have "emboldened these demands that just aren't grounded in reality."

And in a possible preview of a rematch with former President Donald J. Trump, NBC on Friday aired part of an interview in which Mr. Trump sided just as forcefully with the car companies against the unions.

"The autoworkers will not have any jobs, Kristen, because all of these cars are going to be made in China," Mr. Trump said in an interview set to air Sunday on the network's "Meet the Press" program. "The autoworkers are being sold down the river by their leadership, and their leadership should endorse Trump."

Friday's walkout by the U.A.W. is in some ways a broader test of Mr. Biden's economic agenda beyond just his pro-union stand. It also touches on his call for higher wages for the middle class; his climate-driven push to reimagine an electric vehicle future for car companies; and his call for higher taxes for the wealthy. The strike is centered in Michigan, a state that the president practically must win in 2024 to remain in the Oval Office.

"You've got rebuilding the middle class and building things again here," Mr. Vale said. "You've got green energy, technology and jobs. You've got important states for the election. So all of these are sort of together here in a swirl."

At the White House, Mr. Biden's aides believe the battle between the car companies and its workers will underscore many of the president's arguments about the need to reduce income inequality, the benefits of empowered employees, and the surge in profits for companies like the automakers that makes them able to afford paying higher wages.

That approach is at the heart of the economic argument that Mr. Biden and his campaign team are preparing to make in the year ahead. But it sometimes comes into conflict with the president's other priorities, including a shift toward electric vehicles.

Mr. Biden's push for automobiles powered by batteries instead of combustion engines is seen by many unions as a threat to the workers who have toiled for decades to build cars that run on gas. The unions want factories that make electric cars - most of which are not unionized - to see higher wages and benefits too.

So far, Mr. Biden has sidestepped the question of whether his push for a green auto industry will hasten the demise of the unions. But Friday's remarks are an indication that he remains as committed as ever to the political organizations that have been at the center of his governing coalition for years.

In his remarks on Friday, he hinted at the tension inherent in the technological transition from one mode of propulsion to another.

"I believe that transition should be fair, and a win-win for autoworkers and auto companies," he said. But he added: "I also believe the contract agreement must lead to a vibrant 'Made in America' future that promotes good, strong middle class jobs that workers can raise a family on, where the U.A.W. remains at the heart of our economy, and where the Big Three companies continue to lead in innovation, excellence, quality and leadership."

The targeted strike is designed to disrupt one of America's oldest industries at a time that Mr. Biden is sharpening the contrast between what rivals and allies call Bidenomics and a Republican plan that the president warns is a darker version of trickle-down economics that mostly benefits the rich.

"Their plan - MAGAnomics - is more extreme than anything America has ever seen before," Mr. Biden said on Thursday, hours before the union voted to strike.

Mr. Biden was joined on Friday by several of the more liberal members of his party, who assailed the automakers and stood by the striking workers.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, sent out a fund-raising appeal accusing the companies of refusing "to meet the demands of workers negotiating for better pay" despite having "netted nearly a quarter trillion dollars in profit over the last decade."

Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, visited striking Jeep workers at a Toledo plant that makes the popular Wrangler sport-utility vehicle and declared that "Ohioans stand in solidarity with autoworkers around our state as they demand the Big Three automakers respect the work they do to make these companies successful."

How Mr. Biden navigates the strike and its consequences could have a significant impact on his hopes for re-election. In a CNN poll earlier this month, just 39 percent of people approved of the job he is doing as president and 58 percent said his policies have made economic conditions in the United States worse, not better.

The fact that the strike is centered in Michigan is also critical. Mr. Biden won the state over Mr. Trump in 2020 with just over 50 percent of the vote. Without the state's 16 electoral votes, Mr. Biden would not have defeated his rival.

Unlike previous strikes involving rail workers or air traffic controllers, Mr. Biden has no special legal authority to intervene. Still, he is not exactly just an observer either.

Just before the strike vote, Mr. Biden called Shawn Fain, the president of the U.A.W., as well as top executives of the car companies. Aides said that the president told the parties to ensure that workers get a fair contract and he urged both sides to stay at the negotiating table.

Economists say a lengthy strike, if it goes on for weeks or even months, could be a blow to the American economy, especially in the middle of the country.

Still, the president is unwavering on policies toward both unions and the environment. In a Labor Day speech in Philadelphia, Mr. Biden renewed both his vision about what he called a "transition to an electric vehicle future made in America" - which he said would protect jobs - and his rock-solid belief in unions.

"You know, there are a lot of politicians in this country who don't know how to say the word 'union,'" he said. "They talk about labor, but they don't say 'union.' It's 'union.' I'm one of the - I'm proud to say 'union.' I'm proud to be the most pro-union president."

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