DETROIT, Sept 26 (Reuters) – Joe Biden and Donald Trump will speak to striking auto workers in rare back-to-back events in Michigan this week, highlighting the importance of union support in the 2024 presidential election, even though unions represent a tiny fraction of U.S. workers.
Biden will join striking United Auto Workers (UAW) members on a picket line in Wayne County, Michigan, at 12:45 p.m. EDT (1645 GMT) on Tuesday, the first time a sitting president has joined a picket line in modern U.S. history. The White House did not share the exact location beforehand, citing “security concerns.”
Republican rival Trump, the front-runner to be his party’s 2024 presidential candidate, will address hundreds of workers at a gathering at an auto supplier in a Detroit suburb on Wednesday. The supplier, Drake Enterprises, is a nonunion manufacturer, according to a spokesman at the AFL-CIO. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Republicans believe Biden’s push to electrify America’s vehicle fleet, by pumping billions of dollars of tax rebates into EV manufacturing, is unpopular with auto workers.
In a statement on Tuesday, Trump accused Biden of “stabbing” autoworkers in the back. Biden’s EV mandate, he said, will “annihilate” the U.S. auto industry and cost “thousands of autoworkers their jobs.”
Biden said on Monday that the UAW gave up “an incredible amount” when the auto industry was struggling and the union “saved the automobile industry,” an apparent reference to a 2009 government bailout that included wage cuts.
“Now that the industry is roaring back they should participate in the benefits,” he said.
UAW President Shawn Fain will join Biden at the picket line and the union on Tuesday encouraged non-UAW workers to join local picket lines in support of the “historic” presidential visit. The union is not involved with Trump’s visit and Fain does not plan to attend that event, a source added.
To date, the UAW has declined to support either 2024 presidential candidate, making it the only major union not to back Biden. Both candidates are expected to sharpen their 2024 campaign message in Michigan.
“We are a long way from the general election, but it sure feels like the general election,” said Dave Urban, a Republican strategist who previously worked for Trump.
UAW workers this month began targeted strikes against General Motors (GM.N), Ford (F.N) and Chrysler parent Stellantis (STLAM.MI) seeking wage rises to match CEO pay jumps, shorter work weeks and job security as the industry moves toward electric vehicles.
The White House is holding discussions about ways to blunt any economic fallout from a full walkout.
Only 10.1% of U.S. workers were union members in 2022, but they have outsized political influence because the states where they are strong often swing from voting Democratic to Republican, and their grassroots networks are powerful influences on the working-class vote.
RUST BELT IN THE BALANCE?
The auto industry and its labor movement are deeply intertwined with politics and elections in Michigan and other midwestern U.S. states.
Biden says union support is a cornerstone of his economic policies, and he has pushed investment in U.S. manufacturing, union jobs and workers’ rights. However, he is struggling to convince voters that his economic plan, dubbed “Bidenomics,” is working as he campaigns for a second term.
Trump, who sometimes fought with unions as a real estate developer, slashed corporate taxes as president and generally backed the interests of businesses over labor, experts said.
The Trump administration’s stance on labor issues was “unconditionally anti-union,” said Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois.
Still, in 2016, Trump earned a level of support from union members that no Republican had reached since Ronald Reagan, helping him narrowly capture critical states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Biden rebounded with unions in 2020, with a roughly 16-percentage-point advantage as he reclaimed those so-called Rust Belt states, which have been scarred by decades of job losses as companies embraced lower-cost, often nonunion locations. He won Michigan in 2020 by some 154,000 votes.
In Michigan, Trump will criticize Biden’s economic policies and incentives promoting EVs and say he would do a better job of protecting blue-collar workers if elected to a second term, said Trump adviser Jason Miller.
Trump is banking on driving a wedge between union members and their leaders, who criticized the former president’s labor policies during his term, labor experts said.
Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist, said it was critical for Biden to make the trip to Michigan to ensure that Trump does not rewrite history.
“Biden is saying that we are not just going to let you go there and lie to people and try to change the conversation,” Finney said.
Biden’s Michigan visit represents the most support a sitting president has shown striking workers since Theodore Roosevelt invited striking coal workers to the White House in 1902, historians said.
As a presidential candidate, then former Vice President Biden joined multiple picket lines, including a UAW picket in Kansas City in 2019.
Reporting by Jeff Mason in Detroit and Nandita Bose in Washington, Jarrett Renshaw in Philadelphia and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut
Additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington
Editing by Heather Timmons, Nick Zieminski and Matthew Lewis