LANSING, Mich. (AP) – The possibility of an automatic labor strike could test Joe Biden’s cherished claim that he is the most pro-union president in US history.
The United Auto Workers is threatening to strike against the nation’s three largest automakers, General Motors, Ford and Stellar, unless a tentative communications agreement is reached by 11:59 p.m. Thursday. It could reshape Michigan’s battleground political landscape and potentially unleash a nationwide economic shockwave.
The auto industry accounts for about 3% of the country’s gross domestic product and about 146,000 workers could leave their jobs. While the effects will be most immediate in Michigan and other states with high concentrations of auto jobs, such as Ohio and Indiana, a prolonged strike could lead to car shortages and layoffs in the auto-supply industry and other sectors.
“Anything more than a week is when you start to feel the pain,” says Merrick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. “And anything over two weeks, that’s when the effects start to compound.”
Doc Killian, who has worked for 26 years at Ford’s assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan, says he can no longer afford the cars he helps build, given how the nation’s middle class has been squeezed.
“I think the American public as a whole realizes the impact that American auto workers have on the economy,” Killian said. “If we suffer, the American economy will suffer.”
Biden has built his political career around just such an argument, repeating the mantra that “the middle class built America, and those unions built the middle class.” His administration has also championed organized labor and outright promoted unionization, with Biden often declaring himself “the most pro-union president in American history.”
Still, Sean Fein, who was elected president of the United Auto Workers in March after pledging a more confrontational stance in negotiations with automakers, echoed Biden’s demands on CNN this week, saying, “I think there’s a lot of work to be done. Department.”
The UAW chief tried to broaden his arguments beyond just auto workers. He said in a livestream with union members that the UAW’s demands are about “raising standards for workers everywhere.”
“I truly believe that all of America will stand with us in this fight,” Fein said.
Biden must contend with blunt criticism from former President Donald Trump, the early frontrunner in next year’s Republican presidential primary, who is now pushing the UAW to endorse him — an unlikely prospect, according to union leaders.
Trump posted online that the “once lying” UAW “will soon be out of business” if Biden is allowed to “fake all his electric cars. China will make them. Support Trump!” In another post, the former president appealed directly to rank-and-file union members whose support helped him win Michigan in 2016: “Union leadership must decide whether they will stand with Biden and other far-left political friends in Washington, or whether they will Will stand with frontline autoworkers and President Trump.”
New federal rules pushed by the Biden administration stipulate that two-thirds of new passenger cars sold in the United States must be all-electric by 2032. Trump argued that the measures would “kill the US auto industry and kill countless union autoworker jobs forever, especially in Michigan and the Midwest.”
But some union leaders and members have scoffed at suggestions that the U.S. won’t embrace efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions because manufacturers in China and elsewhere may rush to produce electric vehicles if the U.S. doesn’t. Fein, who has previously praised the “clean auto industry transition” as long as auto workers “have a place in the new economy,” said Trump is “not someone who stands for a good quality of life.”
Dave Green, the UAW’s regional director for Ohio and Indiana, said the former president “has no credibility in my book” because “he has done nothing to support organized labor except for lip service.”
Greene said he still considers Biden the most pro-union president of his life. But he hopes the White House won’t be neutral if a strike happens.
“We don’t forget,” Green said. “When you’re in trouble, having people there to support you – that goes a long way.”
Biden faced some criticism from labor groups last year when he urged Congress to approve legislation to prevent rail workers from going on strike, fearing the holiday could upend supply chains. But, unlike rail and airline workers, the president does not have the power to order autoworkers to stay on the job.
Nowhere will the political consequences of the auto workers’ strike be felt more than in Michigan, which Biden won by nearly 3 percentage points in 2020. The state shifted further during last year’s midterms, with the governor’s office and legislature Democratic-controlled for the first time in 40 years.
Michigan became the first state in nearly six decades to repeal a “right-to-work” law that was approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2012.
“The UAW is a major player in Michigan politics and if there is a strike, no matter the duration, it will have a political impact,” said Mark Brewer, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. Breyer said a strike would require Biden to “talk and act consistent with his previous advocacy for working people.”
That could mean alienating other allies, though Biden has in the past backed the administration’s rules on future sales from top U.S. automakers. And Ray Curry, the former UAW president who was temped by Fein, has worked with Biden in the past, even attending White House events.
Biden nevertheless was anxious to meet Fein because of the pair’s shared working-class background, and they sat together in the Oval Office in July. The White House said it has been in regular contact with the UAW since then and that overall communication is now much better.
“We’ve been engaging regularly with the parties and certainly looking to assist in the negotiations in any way we can,” said Gene Sperling, a Michigan native and longtime Democrat and Biden adviser, who the president tapped as the administration’s point person on the auto worker talks. “But the parties have no choice but to be at the table 24/7 to come up with what the president wants to be a win-win deal.”
Union support helped Biden overcome a slow bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and it helped him win not only Michigan but Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as he defeated Trump in that year’s general election.
To underline his commitment to organized labor, Biden’s only campaign rally since launching his re-election bid in April came in June in Philadelphia, when more than a dozen of the nation’s most powerful unions endorsed Biden for a second term.
That so many unions came together for an unprecedented collective endorsement so early in the election cycle was interpreted as a show of strength for the president. Conspicuously absent from the event, however, was the UAW. Fein has since said that if Biden wants the UAW’s 2024 endorsement, he needs to earn it.
Other union leaders acknowledged what was at stake for the president.
“Is a strike uncomfortable for an administration?” said Randy Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which endorsed Biden’s re-election this summer. “Of course they are.”
But, he said, “the administration believes in workers and believes that workers have the power to get a better life through collective organization and collective bargaining.”
“It’s not a soundbite to them,” Weingarten said. “It’s a belief system.”
Wizert reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report.
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