President Joe Biden’s decision to join the picket line of the United Auto Workers on Tuesday, the 12th day of its strike against major manufacturers, underscored a loyalty to unions that appears to be unparalleled in U.S. presidential history.
Experts in U.S. presidential and labor history say they can’t recall a time in which a sitting president has engaged in a sustained strike, even during the terms of more active presidents. pro-union like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
Theodore Roosevelt invited union leaders along with mine operators to the White House in the midst of a historic coal strike in 1902, a decision seen at the time as a rare embrace of unions as Roosevelt tried to resolve the dispute.
Lawmakers regularly go on strike to show solidarity with unions, and during his 2020 Democratic primary campaign, Biden and other presidential hopefuls participated in a picket of hundreds of union workers. casino in Las Vegas is pushing for a hotel contract with the Palms Casino Resort.
But sitting presidents, who must balance workers’ rights with disruptions to the economy, supply chains, and other areas of daily life, have long wanted to stay on strike—until Biden.
“This is absolutely unprecedented. No president has ever picketed before,” said Erik Loomis, a University of Rhode Island professor and expert on American labor history.
Historically, presidents have “avoided direct participation in strikes. They see themselves as mediators. “They don’t consider it their responsibility to directly intervene in a strike or a labor action.”
Biden’s trip to join a picket line in suburban Detroit is the most significant demonstration of his pro-union bona fides, a record that includes vocal support for Amazon.com’s union efforts to improve facilities and executive actions promoting workers’ organizations.
It also won a joint endorsement from major unions earlier this year and is scouting Southern California to raise funds amid strikes by Hollywood writers and actors.
During the ongoing UAW strike, Biden has argued that the auto companies have not done enough to satisfy the union, although White House officials have repeatedly declined to say whether the president supports specific UAW demands, such as a 40% wage increase and full pay for a 32-hour work week.
“I think the UAW stopped a lot when the auto industry went down. They gave everything, from their pensions, and they saved the auto industry,” Biden said Monday from the White House. He emphasized that workers should benefit from the automakers’ fortunes “now that the industry is regaining its strength.”
Biden and other Democrats have more aggressively touted the president’s pro-union credentials at a time when former President Donald Trump is trying to undermine union support in critical swing states where voters remain influential, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Biden also relied on his union support at a time when unions enjoyed broad public support: 67% of Americans approved of unions in an August Gallup poll.
Instead of participating in the second Republican primary debate on Wednesday, Trump will go to Michigan to meet with striking autoworkers who are looking to use the state’s economic discontent and anger to push the Biden administration for more electric vehicles, a key component of his clean energy agenda.
“If it weren’t for Trump, Joe Biden would be giving East Palestine auto workers treatment and saying his schedule is too busy,” said Trump campaign adviser Jason Miller, referring to the small town of Ohio, which is still dealing with the aftermath of a train derailment in February.
Biden said he would visit the community, but so far he has not done so.
White House officials rejected the idea that Trump forced their hand, saying that Biden was heading to Michigan at the request of UAW President Shawn Fain, who last week invited the president to join the strikers.
“(Biden) is pro-UAW; he’s a worker; that’s the president,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday. “He supports union workers and will support the men and women of the UAW.”
However, the UAW strike, which expanded to 20 states last week, remains a problem for the Biden administration, as part of the workers’ grievances includes concerns about a broader shift to electric vehicles.
The move away from gasoline vehicles worries some auto workers because the electric versions require fewer people to make them, and there is no guarantee that the factories that make them are integrated.
Carolyn Nippa, who walked the picket line Monday at the GM parts warehouse in Van Buren Township, Michigan, was skeptical about the president’s advocacy for electric cars, even as she said Biden is a better president than Trump for working people. He said, “It’s great that we have a president who wants to support local unions and the working class.”
“I know this is the future. This is the future of the auto industry,” Nippa said. “I hope it won’t affect our jobs.”
However, some pickets are more skeptical about Biden’s visit on Tuesday.
Dave Ellis, who stocks shares at the distribution center, said he’s glad Biden wants to show people he’s behind the middle class, but the visit is about to get more votes.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s about us,” said Ellis, who argued that Trump would be a better president for the middle class than Biden because Trump is a businessman.
The Biden administration had no formal role in the negotiations, and the White House withdrew a decision by the president earlier this month to send two key representatives to Michigan after determining it would be more productive for advisers to Gene Sperling and acting secretary of Labor, Julie Su, to monitor the talks from Washington.