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UAW strike: Biden, Trump seek blue-collar votes in swing state Michigan

DETROIT – Strikes by the United Auto Workers union against General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis will get the presidential treatment this week in Michigan. Twice, in fact.

President Joe Biden visited a picket line Tuesday at a GM parts facility in Belleville following a public invitation Friday from UAW President Shawn Fain, who joined Biden for the visit. Former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner among Republicans in the 2024 presidential race, is scheduled to hold a rally Wednesday night at an auto supplier in Clinton Township, Michigan.

Biden and Trump are effectively tied in the polls over a year out from the election. Each 2024 presidential candidate is trying to win over blue-collar voters such as Darius Collier, one of roughly 18,300 autoworkers currently on strike who’s “indifferent” about the candidates themselves.

President Joe Biden speaks next to Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers, as he joins striking members of the union on the picket line outside GM’s Willow Run Distribution Center in Bellville, Michigan, Sept. 26, 2023.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

“It would be good if they actually show the support that we need to get through this,” said Collier, whose Mopar facility in Centerline, Michigan, is one of 10 parts and distribution centers set for potential closure under a recent contract proposal by Stellantis to consolidate facilities.

Michigan voters helped both Biden and Trump in winning the White House during the past two presidential elections in 2020 and 2016, respectively. They’ve both gained union support, but in different ways.

Biden endorsement withheld

While the UAW has historically supported Democrats, including Biden in 2020, Fain is withholding the union’s reendorsement of the president, who has touted himself as the “most pro-union president in American history.” Trump has won support of many rank-and-file union members.

“Both President Trump and President Biden understand the importance that Michigan has electorally and there’s a realization that elections can be very close, so they want to be seen frequently, and the UAW strike is a wonderful, high-publicity moment to deploy their message and be seen once again,” said Mark Burton, a partner at Honigan law firm and a former of chief strategist of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat.

UAW members Niko Shinn (front) and Darius Collier (back) walk a picket line on Sept. 25, 2023 outside a Mopar facility owned by automaker Stellantis in Centerline. Michigan.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

Michigan Democrats such as Whitmer and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell have attended UAW rallies since the UAW’s Sept. 15 strikes began. However, Fain’s politician of choice has been Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran against Biden in 2020.

Fain has appeared with the independent senator from Vermont in Washington, D.C., and during a recent UAW rally in Detroit. He also has echoed Sanders’ messages of fighting “corporate greed” and has positioned the UAW’s collective bargaining with the Detroit automakers as a “war” between the billionaire and blue-collar classes.

Fain invited Biden to join the UAW picket lines days after Trump announced he would skip the second GOP debate to hold a rally in Macomb County, Michigan, where a large contingent of blue-collar auto workers live.

“We invite and encourage everyone who supports our cause to join us on the picket line from our friends and families all the way up to the president of the United States,” Fain said Friday during a Facebook Live stream.

Fain has not expressed much support for Biden, many times saying he needs to better prove his claim of being the “most pro-union president.” However, Fain’s made clear his position on Trump.

UAW President Shawn Fain: GM, Stellantis made the decision for us to strike

“Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers,” Fain said last week in a statement. “We can’t keep electing billionaires and millionaires that don’t have any understanding what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to get by and expecting them to solve the problems of the working class.”

The UAW on Tuesday issued a largely generic press release ahead of Biden’s visit, saying it will “mark the first time a sitting U.S. President has joined striking workers on a picket line,” followed by several paragraphs about the union’s strike and no statement from Fain.

Fain, on the picket line with Biden at the Willow Run Redistribution Center, called the president joining the picket line a “historic moment.” But he did not officially endorse the commander-in-chief for next year’s presidential election.

US President Joe Biden addresses striking members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union at a picket line outside a General Motors Service Parts Operations plant in Belleville, Michigan, on September 26, 2023.

Jim Watson | AFP | Getty Images

“Today, I just want to take a moment to stand with all of you with our president and say thank you to the president. Thank you, Mr. President, for coming,” Fain said Tuesday. “We know the president will do right by the working-class. And when we do right by the working class, you can leave the rest to us because we’re going take care of this business.”

UAW is not affiliated with Trump’s Wednesday rally at Drake Enterprises, which is reportedly a non-union supplier of engine, transmission and other components for heavy truck, agriculture and automotive markets. But UAW members have previously attended and participated in Trump’s events in Michigan.

Trump stokes EV anxieties

Fain has previously said a second Trump term in the White House would be a “disaster.” However, Trump, as he has in the past, is gaining blue-collar support.

“I like Trump,” said Niko Shinn, another autoworker who’s currently on strike at the Mopar plant. “He’s a good businessman and seems like he knows more about, not politics, but negotiating and stuff like that.”

Trump’s support among union members has increased as Biden’s fallen in recent months, according to Michigan polling company EPIC·MRA. Trump led Biden 46% to 43% among union members in an August survey, after Biden led Trump 51 % to 42% in June, according to Bernie Porn, president of EPIC·MRA.

“With union members, he has been so supportive of just about everything that union members want. The one thing that they’re concerned about is the push towards electric vehicles because they’re concerned about the fewer numbers of employees it takes to build an electric vehicle,” Porn said.

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Electric vehicles, or EVs, are expected to require less labor and parts than the traditional vehicles equipped with internal combustion engines. They are expected to be one of several talking points Trump discusses during his Wednesday rally.

“President Trump’s rhetoric in his position stances, I think, stands clearly with the vast majority of the rank-and-file of the UAW who are concerned about their jobs being eliminated by this Biden administration forced transition to electric vehicles,” said Jamie Roe, a Republican strategist based in Macomb County, Michigan, where Trump’s rally is being held.

UAW workers picket outside of Ford’s Wayne Assembly Plant on September 26, 2023 in Wayne, Michigan. 

Scott Olson | Getty Images

Fain has said the union is withholding a reelection endorsement for Biden until the union’s concerns about the auto industry’s transition to all-electric vehicles are addressed.

Biden’s visit may be an olive branch to assist in the UAW’s eventual endorsement as well as potential leverage for the union in its ongoing negotiations with the Detroit automakers.

“I think the president’s visit, particularly if Shawn Fain is joining [Biden] on a picket line, I think it is another stroke of strategy that increases the pressure and increases the overall strength of the union when it comes to the actual negotiations with the autos,” Burton said.

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