President Joe Biden walks along the UAW picket line and engages with union members at the GM Willow Run Distribution Center, Tuesday, September 26, 2023, in Belleville, Michigan. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Donning a red UAW T-shirt given to him by workers, President Joe Biden last week joined union President Shawn Fain in Belvidere, Ill., to celebrate victories in the “Stand Up Strike” against domestic automakers.
Biden started his speech with a familiar refrain.
“The middle class built America — and unions built the middle class,” the Democrat said to applause. “That was true in the 20th century, and it’s still true today. And Americans know it. That’s why unions are more popular today than they’ve been in decades.”
The UAW has tentative agreements with Ford, GM, and Stellantis after going on strike against all three companies on Sept. 15. The deals include a 25% wage increase through April 2028, pay for workers who went out on strike, a “just transition” for engine workers as companies move toward electric vehicles, and an end to tiered compensation, where workers with lesser seniority earn significantly reduced pay than more senior tenured employees.
The location of the rally was significant, as Stellantis’ idled Belvidere Assembly Plant is set to reopen under the deal struck with the UAW. The company is giving the plant a $4.8 billion shot in the arm to reopen the existing facility as a parts distribution center and build a $3.2 billion battery production facility that would launch in 2028. There also are plans to invest another $1.5 billion to build a second facility in Belvidere that would manufacture as 100,000 mid-size trucks by 2027.
Near the top of his speech to an enthusiastic crowd, Biden highlighted his history of supporting labor during his decades-long political career, as well as his historic September visit to the picket line alongside Fain at the GM Willow Run Distribution Center in Belleville, Mich.
“Look, that day in Michigan, I said the auto strike was about a simple proposition. You guys sacrificed to save the automobile industry” during the 2008 financial crisis, Biden said.
“… And now, the auto companies are doing incredibly well. So, auto workers should be doing incredibly well, as well. You saved the auto industry, and they should step up for you,” he added.
The president gave a shout-out to Ford, GM, and Stellantis for negotiating “ultimately in good faith.
“And as a result, autoworkers will be rewarded and the iconic Big Three are going to still lead the world in quality and innovation because of you,” Biden added.
Praise for union chief
Biden saved his highest praise for Fain, who’s in his first year leading the union and is now sporting a beard after the 46-day strike.
“The fact is, this starts at the top, though, with Shawn Fain. Shawn, you’ve done one hell of a job, pal,” Biden said. “When I called Shawn to congratulate him on these historic deals with the Big Three automakers, he said the credit goes to all of you — all of you out there, and it does. And it may be true, but it doesn’t hurt to have a leader with a backbone like a ramrod, and that’s Shawn.”
In his speech, Fain declared that it was “a good day to be in Belvidere.”
“When I came into office just seven months ago, nobody thought we could accomplish what we’ve accomplished,” he said.
Biden said he and the union head have a similar outlook on the economy.
“I don’t look at the economy through the eyes of Wall Street or Park Avenue. I look at it through the eyes of the people I grew up with in Scranton, Pa., and Claymont, Del.,” Biden said. “My guess is that’s how Shawn looks at it, too — the people he grew up with in Kokomo [Ind.].”
And Fain and Biden did hit on similar themes in their remarks.
“Throughout this campaign, we’ve talked a lot about saving the American Dream. It’s not just a slogan. For 40 years, our country’s been going backwards. The working class keeps getting left behind, while the billionaires strip our communities for parts. And there’s only one thing that can stop that: It’s us.”
It’s been a big year for organized labor, with unions winning big concessions from UPS, Kaiser Permanente, and major Las Vegas resort companies. Biden said that the new UAW contracts will have a ripple effect for all workers.
“Look, folks, these deals are gamechangers not only for UAW workers but for all workers in America. Just ask the folks at Toyota, which last week announced that it would significantly, finally increase wages for their workers,” Biden said.
On the heels of the union’s big wins against the Detroit Three, Fain told workers in a Wednesday livestream that the UAW is ready to go on offense and unionize other automakers, like Honda, Subaru, Hyundai, and Toyota.
“Organizing and contracts go hand in hand,” Fain said on Thursday. “And now we organize like hell.”
Biden praised officials at the event, including Democratic Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, for working “so darn hard to get jobs back here in Belvidere.”
And Biden did take a swipe at former President Donald Trump, who’s leading the 2024 GOP presidential field. In September, Trump gave a speech to non-union auto supplier in Macomb County, Mich., while the strike was on, but he did not go to a UAW picket line.
“When my predecessor was in office, six factories closed across the country. Tens of thousands of auto jobs were lost nationwide. And, on top of that, he was willing to cede the future of electric vehicles to China,” Biden said. “He said if America invested in electric vehicles, it would drive down wages. It would destroy jobs. It would spell the end of the American automobile industry. Well, like almost everything else he said, he was wrong. And you … have proved him wrong.”
There was a moment of levity in the middle of Biden’s speech when he paused after an audience member fell down.
After asking if the person was OK, Biden turned to the audience and cracked a joke alluding to criticism of his age.
“I want the press to know that wasn’t me,” Biden said to laughter and applause.
This article first appeared in the Michigan Advance, an affiliate, like the Phoenix, of the nonprofit States Newsroom network.
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