BELLEVILLE, Mich. — President Biden joined a picket line here Tuesday in an extraordinary attempt to place himself on the side of striking union members against the country’s biggest auto manufacturers and make good on a promise to be “the most pro-union president in history.”

It marked the first time a sitting president has joined a picket line, and on a dreary afternoon Biden stood on a wooden platform and spoke through a bullhorn with an American flag on it to a group of United Auto Workers members clad in red shirts.

“Now they’re doing incredibly well,” he said outside a General Motors plant here on the outskirts of Detroit, referring to auto manufacturers. “And guess what? You should be doing incredibly well, too.”

Wearing a UAW hat and a sweatshirt with the presidential seal, Biden triggered broad applause when he told the crowd of about 200 people that they “deserve a significant raise.”

“Let’s keep going,” he said later, before walking among the picketers to give out fist bumps and pose for selfies. “You deserve what you’ve earned. And you deserve a whole hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now.”


Biden was joined by UAW President Shawn Fain, who remarked that the plant they were standing in front of once produced B-24 bombers during World War II.

“Today, 80 years later, we find ourselves here again,” Fain said. “It’s a different kind of war we’re fighting. Today, the enemy isn’t some foreign country miles away. It’s right here in our own area. It’s corporate greed.”

“And the weapon we produce to fight that enemy?” he continued. “It’s the working class people, all of you working your butts off on those lines to deliver great product for our companies.”

Fain also thanked Biden for “being part of this fight.”

APTOPIX Auto Workers Strike Biden

President Biden joins striking United Auto Workers on the picket line on Tuesday in Van Buren Township, Mich. White House officials said that Biden, to the best of their knowledge, was the first president to have walked a line. Evan Vucci/Associated Press

There were significant political upsides of the visit for Biden – casting his lot with a group of middle-class workers in a key swing state – but there also could be significant risks, if the strike drags on and contributes to a rocky election-year economy.

Biden is also walking a delicate line as auto manufacturers assert that the strike and any contract concessions could impact production of electric vehicles, which are an important plank of the president’s clean energy policies.


In a sign of the heightened political importance of the UAW strike, and a potential preview of the 2024 presidential race, former president Donald Trump is planning to make his own visit to the area on Wednesday in a similar attempt to tap into the angst among industrial workers in the heartland.

But while Biden came at the invitation of union leaders, Trump was making his visit despite their warnings to stay away. And while Biden joined the picket line in solidarity with UAW members, Trump plans to deliver remarks at a nonunion shop.

Although other presidents have strongly supported labor unions, historians could not recall any other president having walked a picket line, and White House officials said that Biden, to the best of their knowledge, was the first.

President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 made history by calling union and business leaders to Washington in an attempt to arbitrate a deal to end a strike called by coal miners. Decades later, Franklin D. Roosevelt sent his labor secretary, Frances Perkins, to work with strikers.

President Biden, third from right, listens as United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain speaks to United Auto Workers on the picket line on Tuesday. Evan Vucci/Associated Press

The difference with Biden, as was apparent on Tuesday, is that he was aligning himself closely with union members and their cause and is not at the moment attempting to be an independent arbiter.

Officially, at least, Biden is not getting involved in the details of the workers’ contract demands. “We’re going to leave it to the UAW and the Big Three to continue to have that conversation,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One. “We certainly – we’re not part of that. We’re not part of the negotiations, but we are here to help in any way.”


But when Biden, at the site of the picket line, was asked if workers deserve a 40 percent pay raise – an increase demanded by the UAW – he responded by saying, “Yes.”

As the president arrived at the Willow Run plant, workers were walking in a circle and intoning chants that could be heard over a sound system playing “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins.

“No deal, no wheels!” one chant went. “No pay, no parts!” went another.

Throughout his career, Biden has made loyalty to labor unions a part of his political brand. He courted them throughout his 36-year career in the Senate, and they have been a core part of his three presidential campaigns. Beyond that, he seeks to cast himself as a figure with working-class origins, often describing his childhood in Scranton, Pa.

Since announcing his reelection bid earlier this year, his only campaign rally was held in June at an event in Philadelphia with the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions.

“President Biden is demonstrating once again that he is the most pro-union president in history,” Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Working people know he has our backs every day and that he understands that UAW members’ fight for a fair contract is deeply connected to the struggle over the soul of our country.”


In advance of the trip, however, White House officials would not specify whether Biden was aligned with the UAW on its specific contract demands, including calls for additional pay and time off.

“That is something for them to discuss. . . . We’re not going to litigate the specifics of the negotiations,” Jean-Pierre said. “He is standing with the workers. We are not involved in negotiations. That is something for them to decide, what is going to work for the parties that are involved. But he is standing with the autoworkers.”

One factor complicating Biden’s trip to Michigan is that his climate policy is in part dependent on auto manufacturers building more electric vehicles – a bigger challenge if workers are striking. Automakers have also said that a big increase in labor costs could make it more difficult to scale up EV production.

The UAW has said it supports EVs but wants to make sure companies accepting federal money maintain the same labor standards in those plants as in their more traditional factories. The union has criticized the Biden administration for giving federal funds to automakers that are shifting jobs to Southern states, where unions are weaker, and for paying workers in battery plants less than their combustion-engine counterparts.

President Biden greets striking United Auto Workers in Van Buren Township, Mich., on Tuesday. He came at the invitation of union leaders. Evan Vucci/Associated Press

In a statement ahead of Biden’s trip, Trump focused on the president’s push for more electric vehicles, saying it would “annihilate the U.S. auto industry and cost countless thousands of autoworkers their jobs.”

“With Biden, it doesn’t matter what hourly wages they get, in three years there will be no autoworker jobs as they will all come out of China and other countries,” he said. “With me, there will be jobs and wages like you’ve never seen before. Our economy will grow.”


Trump’s campaign has also placed radio ads in the region touting Trump’s tax cuts and attacking Biden’s support for EVs. Trump on Wednesday is scheduled to speak at a Detroit-area engine parts supplier that is not unionized.

Michigan is a heavily contested swing state, and likely to be fought over in 2024. Trump won it narrowly in 2016, but Biden then carried it by three percentage points in 2020. Exit polls showed Biden winning about two-thirds of those from union households in the state.

Although the Trump campaign initially booked his prime-time appearance in Michigan to counterprogram against the second Republican primary debate Wednesday night – one that he is not joining – the former president’s aides were equally enthusiastic to see the speech shaping up to be an opening salvo in the general election rematch with Biden.

The White House also appeared to welcome the faceoff.

“President Biden is fighting to ensure that the cars of the future will be built in America by unionized American workers in good-paying jobs, instead of being built in China,” Jean-Pierre said. “As American automakers have earned record corporate profits, the president believes the American autoworkers [are] responsible for creating the value [and] should get a record contract.”

The UAW endorsed Biden in 2020 but has refrained from joining other major labor groups in immediately backing his reelection.

When Biden first landed, he greeted Fain and members of the Michigan congressional delegation. Biden brushed off a question about what it would take to get the union to endorse him – “I’m not worried about that,” he said – but the trip appeared to earn him good standing with union leaders.

“Thank you, Mr. President, for coming,” Fain said at the picket line. “We know the president will do right by the working class.”

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