If Joe Biden accepts the United Auto Workers' invitation to visit their picket line, the U.S. President would be showing support to union workers in a labor dispute in a way that has not happened in the United States in more than a century, a presidential historian said.
The UAW on Friday invited Biden to visit workers on its picket lines, and said that it would expand its Detroit strike to parts distribution centers across the United States at General Motors and Chrysler parent Stellantis. The company said it has made real progress in talks with Ford Motor.
"It’s very rare for a president to visit strikers," said Jeremi Suri, a historian and presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He added that even pro-labor Democratic President Jimmy Carter never visited a picket line. "This would be a major, major shift for Biden to identify the presidency with striking workers, rather than siding with industry or staying above the fray."
The White House said the president appreciates the UAW invitation, saying Biden will continue to fight for workers, but but did not immediately commit to visiting the strikers.
Numerous unions have already endorsed Biden's re-election, but the UAW has for now withheld its endorsement. Biden said the automakers should "go further to ensure record corporate profits mean record contracts for the UAW," echoing sentiments by union leaders.
Both the Detroit Three and the UAW have a lot at stake from federal policy decisions. The automakers are counting on Washington for billions in subsidies for electric-vehicle production. They are negotiating with the Biden administration over future emissions rules that require a shift to EVs that the industry believes would be too fast and too expensive.
The union, meanwhile, is concerned that the transition to EVs will mean a loss of jobs as those vehicles require fewer parts in production.
Former President Donald Trump, who will be Biden's likely opponent in the 2024 race, plans to travel to Detroit next week to speak at a rally advertised for auto workers as he tries to win back some blue-collar workers who defected to Biden in his victory over Trump in 2020. Trump has called for rank-and-file union workers to ignore their leaders.
Trump has not said if he will visit the picket lines. United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain blasted Trump earlier in the week, saying the union was "fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers."
The last U.S. president to show such support for striking workers was probably Theodore Roosevelt, Suri said. In 1902, Roosevelt invited striking coal workers to the White House with government officials and management, concerned that the country faced a coal shortage.
Ahead of the precedent-shattering meeting, Roosevelt, like Biden, found himself with little leverage to negotiate.
"There is literally nothing ... the national government has any power to do," he complained to U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, according to a recounting of the strike on the Department of Labor website. "I am at wit's end how to proceed."
Workers on the picket lines had mixed feelings over whether Biden should visit. Some said politicians should stay out of the fray, while others said they would welcome the support if the strike continued.
“Me personally, I wouldn’t mind if Biden stepped up and showed some support," said Laura Zielinski, 55, of Toledo, Ohio, on Tuesday, noting Biden's visit to the Stellantis Toledo assembly plant in 2010 while he served as vice president.
"Support like that would put a spotlight on the talks - kind of give a nudge to the companies.”
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