On Tuesday, an 'Absolutely Unprecedented' Move by Biden

Looks like he'll be the first president ever to walk picket line when he joins UAW strike in Michigan
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 26, 2023 6:13 AM CDT
On Tuesday, an 'Absolutely Unprecedented' Move by Biden
United Auto Workers members and supporters picket outside a General Motors facility in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, on Friday.   (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

President Biden's decision to stand alongside United Auto Workers picketers Tuesday on the 12th day of their strike against major carmakers underscores an allegiance to labor unions that appears to be unparalleled in presidential history, per the AP. Experts in presidential and US labor history say they can't 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 D. 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, 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 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 US 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."

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 Amazon.com facilities and executive actions that have 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, Biden has argued that the auto companies haven't 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 workweek.

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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. Instead of participating in the second Republican primary debate on Wednesday, Trump will head to Michigan as well to meet with striking autoworkers. 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," said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

(More UAW strike stories.)

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