Biden spent weeks of auto strike talks building relationships with the UAW leader that have yet to fully come to fruition
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden called the head of the United Auto Workers union to congratulate him last week on landing a new contract with General Motors I wish him a happy 55th birthday, a sign of how the relationship has evolved since their first meeting in the Oval Office on July 19.
UAW President Sean Fein He launched a strike against GM stronghold And Chrysler owner Stellantis With a willingness to force political leaders to choose between supporting unions or companies. Biden has long crossed that line. He has declared in his speeches that unions build the middle class, but he has also touted his credentials as a former senator from the “corporate capital of the world,” also known as Delaware.
The White House was determined to build trust with Fine and move beyond his occasional insults to Biden. This approach, which included Biden meeting with Workers on the picket line in Michigan, It helped resolve a series of strikes that lasted about 45 days and led to significant wage increases for workers.
But even as Biden’s sympathies openly shifted toward union workers during the standoff, there are few signs that the UAW has been entirely warm toward the Democratic president. Biden has yet to win the union’s endorsement as he seeks re-election with the message he delivered to blue-collar workers.
The UAW declined to talk about its relationship with the White House. Any final decision on the endorsement is not expected to come until after contracts with automakers are finalized, which will likely happen later this month.
The relationship between Fine and Biden could be crucial to the outcome of the 2024 election. The UAW’s more than 380,000 members are spread across states including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, places where narrow margins have determined the overall winner in the past two presidential contests.
Gene Sperling, the White House liaison on strike talks, was in daily contact with UAW executives and the three automakers. Biden has tasked an economic adviser who has served in three Democratic White Houses with developing a relationship with the UAW but also maintaining relationships with automakers that help advance Biden’s electric vehicle agenda.
Sperling told the Associated Press that he followed a set of principles in communicating with all parties: “We’re not here to interfere. We’re not here to interfere. We’re not here to interfere.” We are not here to mediate. But we want to be in touch. “We want to be useful.”
As the weeks passed, Biden and his team did less and publicly moved closer to uniting than ever before.
At one point, Sperling reiterated to the automakers the UAW’s position that new contracts needed to have a cost-of-living adjustment, so wages could be adjusted for inflation. This amendment became part of the initial agreement, which also includes a 30% wage increase for GM workers through April 2028, when the contract expires.
Biden reiterated his position that auto workers made sacrifices during the 2008 financial crisis to keep their employers afloat. Now that automakers are raking in billions of dollars in profits, those same workers should share in the bonuses, the president said.
The politics were thorny, as the president experienced Low ratings for his economic leadership. US adults have largely ignored the healthy 3.9% unemployment rate to focus instead on inflation, including the 20% jump in new car prices since he became president.
But union families were also a crucial constituency for Democrats. They represent just 16% of voters nationwide, but Biden won the group by 56% in 2020, according to AP VoteCast, a national poll of voters.
While organized labor overwhelmingly supported Biden, the UAW remains a major stronghold. Fine has criticized Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2024, but in the weeks leading up to the strike and its aftermath, the labor leader could be out of tune at times with Biden.
When Fine went to the White House on July 19 to meet with senior officials, Biden insisted on holding a 30-minute meeting in the Oval Office without aides, Sperling said.
But Labor Day revealed cracks in relations between the union and the White House. In response to reporters’ questions about the possibilities of a strike that has not yet been announced, Biden tried to downplay the risks.
“I’m not worried about a strike until it happens,” Biden said on September 4. “I don’t think it will happen.”
Fine responded to a separate group of reporters by suggesting that Biden was misinformed: “He must know something we don’t know. Maybe the companies are planning to come in and fill us in on our demands the night before. I don’t know, but inside he’s thinking about something I don’t know about.”
Sperling said the president was trying to be supportive of unions with his comment. When the president saw how his statements were interpreted, he called Finn directly to clarify.
Biden has held multiple talks with automakers and Vine ahead of the September 15 strike deadline. When it became clear that a targeted strike would occur on a specific number of factories, Biden showed his support for the UAW. He issued a statement that borrowed UAW language and said Sperling and acting Labor Secretary Julie Su would go to Michigan to help with the talks.
But the UAW did not want management officials present during the first week of the strike, Sperling said, because of the message it might send about the status of negotiations. By that point, there was enough confidence that the misunderstanding did little from the White House’s perspective to damage the relationship. Sperling and Sue met twice in person the following week with negotiators.
However, Fine expressed his displeasure with Biden’s statements publicly that negotiations broke down and that led to the strike.
“We agree with Joe Biden when he says: ‘Record profits mean record decades.’” “We disagree when he says negotiations broke down,” Fine said in a statement.
UAW officials told Sperling that Fine really wanted Biden to visit the picket lines, not as a political event but as a show of support for workers. Biden liked the idea. After accepting that invitation, Sperling informed the automakers that Biden would meet with the striking workers. The companies were not happy, but that did not derail the talks.
Biden’s September 26 visit to the Michigan picket line — the first presidential visit — won Fine praise, but little else. The UAW president refused to endorse the president, who was involved in historical outreach.
“We’ll just see how it goes,” Fine told The Associated Press at the time. “It’s not just for me. It’s up to our leadership and our members. We have our process that we follow. So like I said we will do it when the time comes.”
However, the White House saw it as building trust with the UAW as the talks progressed. Ford reached a tentative deal on October 25, followed by Stellantis on October 28, and General Motors was close to a deal.
Sperling, on an unrelated flight, texted GM CEO Mary Barra and a UAW official to message him in the event of an agreement while in the air. Once a tentative agreement was reached, Barra told the assembled negotiators that she needed to send a text message to the White House.
AP Auto Writer Tom Krischer in Detroit contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on apnews.com