United Auto Workers members attend a rally in Detroit, Mich., on September 15, 2023.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File
The UAW union late last week went on strike to pressure the “Big Three” to raise worker wages.
The strength of President Biden’s economic message could hinge on the outcome of the strike.
Biden has sought to sharpen his 2024 economic pitch, but voters aren’t fully sold on his message.
Shortly after Joe Biden launched his 2020 presidential campaign, his first major rally was held at a Teamsters union hall in Pittsburgh, where he extolled the virtues of middle-class Americans.
Referring to himself as a “union man,” Biden mapped out of his vision of an economy that would empower ordinary citizens by lifting wages and targeting financial loopholes that favored big businesses.
“The country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers, CEOs, and hedge-fund managers. It was built by you,” he told the receptive audience in April 2019.
That was over four years ago.
Biden is now sitting in the Oval Office, and the United Auto Workers strike is giving him the most challenging labor crisis of his presidency, as the economic pitch for his reelection bid could sink or swim depending on the outcome.
The UAW, which represents almost 150,000 autoworkers, began a strike on Friday against the “Big Three” automakers — Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis. It is the first time that there have been simultaneous strikes at the three Detroit automakers. (At the moment, only three plants — a Ford factory in Wayne, Michigan; a GM assembly plant in Wentzville, Missouri; and a Stellantis Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio — are striking. But more factories could be added to the list depending on how negotiations move along.)
The union is calling for more robust benefits and the elimination of “tiered” compensation, the latter of which occurs when workers are paid different rates for performing the same work.
But perhaps the biggest sticking point for the UAW is the push to raise wages.
The UAW is now calling for a 36% increase in general employee pay for across a four-year period, mirroring the 40% chief executive pay bump that union leadership says has occurred over the past four years.
And Biden is clearly listening.
Late last week, he sent acting Labor secretary Julie Su and White House economic advisor Gene Sperling to Michigan “to offer their full support for the parties” in the contract talks.
President Joe Biden is seeking reelection to a second term.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
And the president last week spoke on the wide disparities in CEO pay compared to workers on the floor.
“I’ve been in touch with both parties over — since this began over the last few weeks. And over the last — the past decade, auto companies have seen record profits, including the last few years, because of the extraordinary skill and sacrifices of the UAW workers,” he said at the White House. “But those record profits have not been shared fairly, in my view, with those workers.”
“Unions raise workers’ wages, they said — incomes — increase homeownership; increase retirement savings; increase access to critical benefits, like sick leave and childcare; and reduce inequality — all of which strengthen our economy for all workers,” he added.
This is the sort of pitch that Biden has sought to use in next year’s election, but especially in Michigan, which is a critical part of the blue-state coalition that he hopes to assemble.
But ahead of any agreement coming to fruition in the next few days, the Biden team might want to send some emissaries to factories across the Midwest, where discontent with the president among some auto workers is simmering, according to a report from Politico’s Adam Wren.
Denny Butler, a union committeeman in Kokomo, Ind., told the outlet that he wasn’t backing Biden or former President Donald Trump at the moment. And he also criticized both political parties.
“They’re all full of shit,” Butler said.
“Historically, man, if you didn’t vote Democrat years ago, and you were in the union, sometimes you got your ass kicked,” he continued. “Democrats were for the working people. That shit has changed. I’m telling you what, the Democratic Party was not what it was 20, 30 years ago.”
As Biden looks to lay out his economic plans to working-class voters across the country, most of whom have endured inflation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and supply-chain issues, the fallout from the UAW strike could inform the opinions of voters across the political spectrum next year.
Voters will ask: Does the economy work for me?
The president will have to continue listening to workers to effectively make his case.