Joe Biden and Donald Trump will speak to striking auto workers in rare back-to-back events in Michigan this week, highlighting how important unions are to the 2024 presidential election, even though they represent a tiny fraction of US workers.
Biden will join striking United Auto Workers (UAW) members on a picket line in Wayne County, Michigan at 12 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT) on Tuesday, which labor historians said is the most support shown for striking workers by a sitting president in at least 100 years.
Republican rival Donald 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.
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 is expected to join Biden at the picket line on Tuesday, said a source familiar with the matter. The union is not involved with Trump's visit and Fain does not plan to attend that event, the source added.
To date, the UAW has declined to support either 2024 presidential candidate, making it the only major union not to back Biden.
"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, Ford and Chrysler parent Stellantis 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 having discussions about ways to blunt any economic fallout from a full walkout.
Only 10.1% of US workers were union members in 2022, but they have outsized political influence because the states where they are strong often swing from Democrat to Republican, and they have grassroots networks that are powerful.
Striking auto workers say they would like to see more support from elected officials as they push to get companies to share more of the profits.
"There definitely needs to be more of a light shined on the auto industry," said Brandon Cappelletty, 25, who was on a picket line in Toledo, Ohio last week. "The politicians need to back us a lot more."
Rust belt in the balance?
The auto industry and its labor movement are deeply intertwined with Michigan's politics and that of other Midwestern US states.
Biden has made support for unions a cornerstone of his economic policies. As president, he has emphasized reinvestment in US manufacturing, union jobs and workers' rights even though he is struggling to impress voters with his economic stewardship 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.
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 moved jobs to lower-cost, often non-union locations. He won Michigan in 2020 by some 154,000 votes.
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.
"Bidenflation and Biden's insane EV mandate have put the state of Michigan and the critical constituency of working middle class voters in Michigan in play," said Jason Miller, a senior Trump adviser.
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, Miller added.
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.