As Biden backs striking autoworkers, Trump attacks union leader

President Biden on Friday urged the Big Three automakers to offer more money to the striking United Auto Workers, backing the union’s call for better wages in its unprecedented labor action.

A day before, former president Donald Trump recorded an interview for TV in which he attacked UAW President Shawn Fain, arguing that Fain is “not going to have a union in three years” and alleging the workers “are being sold down the river by their leadership.”

The sharply different approaches between the likely 2024 presidential nominees over the UAW strike highlights the broader contrast between Biden and Trump around unions, the clean energy transition and the economy more generally. Biden, who claims to be the most pro-union president in American history, aimed to show support for labor — while Trump, during whose administration the UAW also went on strike against GM, has picked personal fights and bashed Democrats for pushing the auto industry to transition to electric vehicles.

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Concentrated in Midwestern states that could help decide the next election, the strike could prove both an economic threat to the White House and a political test.

More than 12,000 UAW workers went on strike against Detroit’s three biggest automakers at midnight Friday, with picket lines in Michigan, Ohio and Missouri. The action represents the UAW’s first simultaneous strike against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (which owns Jeep and Chrysler), an action that could ripple across the economy but also carries the symbolic weight of shutting down the historic powerhouse of U.S. manufacturing.

“They have two very different strategies, and they both really need the autoworkers in these states like Michigan,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. “Biden is taking this very unusual position for a president in saying the company has made enough profits and can afford to give the workers more, whereas Trump is attacking the unions and trying to create a specter of fear about the green transition.”

Despite Biden’s overtures, Fain on Friday appeared to rebuke the administration, saying, “The White House is afraid.” Some Biden advisers have struggled to understand Fain’s priorities, according to White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect private assessments.

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While careful not to intervene in a private contract dispute, Biden has been clear that he sees the UAW’s demands as an important step toward ensuring that workers benefit from the record profits by the automakers.

Biden has backed the UAW even as the strike risks compounding the economic turmoil that is already complicating his reelection bid. The union has yet to endorse his 2024 campaign, though it backed him in 2020. Biden has not gone as far as some members of Congress, like Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and John Fetterman (D-Pa.), in sharply criticizing auto executives for failing to provide more to workers. But on Friday, he echoed the union’s call for more pay, in perhaps his starkest embrace of the UAW to date. He also dispatched two top advisers — acting labor secretary Julie Su and White House aide Gene Sperling, who has been monitoring the contract talks for months as the strike deadline neared — to Detroit to help with negotiations.

“Over generations, autoworkers sacrificed so much to keep industry alive and strong … The companies have made some significant offers, but I believe they should go further to ensure record corporate profits mean record contracts,” Biden said at the White House.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce blamed Biden for the strike early Friday. “The UAW strike and indeed the ‘summer of strikes’ is the natural result of the Biden administration’s ‘whole of government’ approach to promoting unionization at all costs,” the business organization’s president and CEO Suzanne P. Clark said in a statement.

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Trump, meanwhile, has tried to use the conflicting tensions facing Biden to his political advantage.

He posted a video last month urging union members not to pay their dues. On Friday, the former president again tried to exploit fears that the EV transition will be led by China, though Biden is investing billions in subsidies to encourage EVs to be built in the United States instead. Trump has repeatedly tied the strike to electric vehicles even though the workers are primarily demanding higher wages and an end to the “two-tier” wage system — issues unrelated to the clean energy transition.

Trump wrote on Truth Social, the social media network he owns, that pushing to build electric cars is a “disaster for both the United Auto Workers and the American Consumer.” He added: “If this happens, the United Auto workers will be wiped out, along with all other auto workers in the United States.”

That position was not only tangential to the demands of the union, but it also clashed with the strategy of Detroit auto manufacturers, who have been investing rapidly in EV production. Although Fain has not embraced Biden, the UAW leader has had harsher words for Trump, accusing him of being a “part of the billionaire class.”

“Trump is trying to hold onto his Rust Belt base by pretending that if they weren’t building electric cars that the union would not be facing a problem. Obviously, that is a lie,” said Annelise Orleck, a labor historian at Dartmouth. “Trump has got finely tuned political instincts and knows he has to some degree some traction in the Rust Belt manufacturing sector. But he’s trying to exploit this technological shift to make it seem the green subsidies are the problem, when that’s not the problem.”

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Trump vowed to help the nation’s “forgotten men and women” and met with some union leaders in the White House shortly after his election, but his administration’s record was consistently hostile to organized labor.

Trump’s appointments to the National Labor Relations Board infuriated labor leaders, and they wound up making it harder to form unions and limiting overtime pay. His top economic policy, the 2017 GOP tax cut, was widely panned by labor leaders. And his appointments to the federal judiciary have also consistently sided with corporate interests.

“The guy does not know a thing about autoworkers and collective bargaining, and it’s completely clear in everything he says about it,” said Seth Harris, who served as a labor adviser in the White House to Biden. “He sees disruption, and he’s trying to find a way to drive a wedge into it. But there’s no agenda or broader theory here. He does not care about these workers.”

Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.

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