President Joe Biden joined United Auto Workers strikers on their picket line on September 26 as their work stoppage against major carmakers hit day 12, a demonstration of support for organized labor unparalleled in presidential history.

“You deserve the significant raise you need,” President Biden said through a bullhorn while wearing a union baseball cap after arriving at a General Motors parts distribution warehouse located in a suburb west of Detroit.

He walked along the picket line, exchanging fist bumps with grinning workers. He encouraged them to continue fighting for better wages despite concerns that a prolonged strike could damage the economy, saying “stick with it.”

He was joined by UAW President Shawn Fain, who rode with him in the presidential limousine to the picket line.

“Thank you, Mr. President, for coming to stand up with us in our generation-defining moment,” said Fain, who described the union as pushing back against “corporate greed.” “We do the heavy lifting. We do the real work,” Fein said. “Not the CEOs.”

Experts in presidential and U.S. labor history say they cannot recall an instance where a sitting president has joined an ongoing strike, even during the tenures of the more ardent pro-union presidents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Theodore Roosevelt invited labor leaders alongside mine operators to the White House amid a historic coal strike in 1902, a decision that was seen at the time as a rare embrace of unions as Roosevelt tried to resolve the dispute.

Lawmakers often appear at strikes to show solidarity with unions, and during his 2020 Democratic primary campaign, President Biden and other presidential hopefuls joined a picket line of hundreds of casino workers in Las Vegas who were pushing for a contract with The Palms Casino Resort.

But sitting presidents, who have to balance the rights of workers with disruptions to the economy, supply chains and other facets of everyday life, have long wanted to stay out of the strike fray — until President Biden.

“This is absolutely unprecedented. No president has ever walked a picket line before,” said Erik Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and an expert on U.S. labor history. Presidents historically “avoided direct participation in strikes. They saw themselves more as mediators. They did not see it as their place to directly intervene in a strike or in labor action.”

President Biden’s trip to join a picket line in the suburbs of Detroit is the most significant demonstration of his pro-union bona fides, a record that includes vocal support for unionization efforts at facilities and executive actions that promoted worker organizing. He also earned a joint endorsement of the major unions earlier this year and has avoided southern California for high-dollar fundraisers amid the writers’ and actors’ strikes in Hollywood.

During the ongoing UAW strike, President Biden has argued that the auto companies have not yet gone far enough to satisfy the union, although White House officials have repeatedly declined to say whether the president endorses specific UAW demands such as a 40% hike in wages and full-time pay for a 32-hour work week.

“I think the UAW gave up an incredible amount back when the automobile industry was going under. They gave everything from their pensions on, and they saved the automobile industry,” President Biden said. He stressed that the workers should benefit from the carmakers’ riches “now that the industry is roaring back.”

President Biden and other Democrats are more aggressively touting the president’s pro-labor credentials at a time when former President Donald Trump is trying to chip away at union support in critical swing states where the constituency remains influential, including Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The President is also leaning in on his union support at a time when labor enjoys broad support from the public, with 67% of Americans approving of labor unions in an August Gallup poll.

Instead of participating in the second Republican primary debate on September 27, Trump will head to Michigan to meet with striking autoworkers, seeking to capitalize on discontent over the state of the economy and anger over the Biden administration’s push for more electric vehicles — a key component of its clean-energy agenda.

White House officials dismissed the notion that Trump forced their hand and noted that Biden was headed to Michigan at the request of UAW President Shawn Fain, who last week invited the sitting president to join the strikers.

“He is pro-UAW, he is pro-workers, that is this president,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday. “He stands by union workers, and he is going to stand with the men and women of the UAW.”

Yet the UAW strike, which expanded into 20 states last week, remains a dilemma for the Biden administration since a part of the workers’ grievances include concerns about a broader transition to electric vehicles. The shift away from gas-powered vehicles has worried some autoworkers because electric versions require fewer people to manufacture and there is no guarantee that factories that produce them will be unionized.

Carolyn Nippa, who was walking the picket line at the GM parts warehouse in Van Buren Township, Michigan, was ambivalent about the president’s advocacy for electric vehicles, even as she said Biden was a better president than Trump for workers.

“It was great that we have a president who wants to support local unions and the working class. I know it’s the future. It’s the future of the car industry,” Nippa said. “I’m hoping it doesn’t affect our jobs.”

The Biden administration has no formal role in the negotiations, and the White House pulled back a decision from the president earlier this month to send two key deputies to Michigan after determining it would be more productive for the advisers, Gene Sperling and acting Labor Secretary Julie Su, to monitor talks from Washington.

Seung Min Kim, Tom Krisher, Chris Megerian, and MI Staff

Associated Press


Evan Vucci (AP), Paul Sancya (AP), Matt Rourke (AP), Morry Gash (AP), Mike Stewart (AP), and Adam Schultz (via The White House)