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At a victory rally for a revived car factory in Illinois on Thursday, President Joe Biden urged workers to remember who had walked a picket line with them when they vote in next year’s presidential election — and who had not.
“When my predecessor was in office, six factories closed across the country,” Biden said. “Here’s the difference. When you were in the middle of the fight, I stood and others stood with you, shoulder to shoulder. My predecessor went to a non-union shop.”
“I hope you guys have a memory,” he added.
The president also urged the union workers to continue organising across the car sector.
“Absolutely”, he told reporters who asked if he supported unionisation at Toyota and Tesla.
Biden was speaking to members of the United Auto Workers during a trip to meet UAW president Shawn Fain in Belvidere, Illinois, a town about 90 minutes north-west of Chicago which is home to a Stellantis assembly plant.
The company behind Chrysler, Jeep and other brands had idled the plant in December, laying off 1,200 workers. The UAW secured its reopening after a 46-day strike against Detroit’s big three carmakers.
Biden’s remarks came just two days after off-year elections in parts of the country delivered better than expected results for his Democratic party in states such as Virginia and Kentucky.
They contrasted with recent polls showing Biden trailing Donald Trump, the frontrunner in the race to be the Republican nominee for the 2024 presidential election, among voters in crucial swing states.
Michigan and Ohio, two of the historic battleground states for presidential elections, are home to many of the striking carworkers — a voting bloc the president has been keen to win over.
The strikes this year forced Biden to prove his pro-labour bona fides by joining the picket line, becoming the first sitting president to do so. Trump also visited Michigan during the labour action — but stopped at a non-union car parts factory to deride electric vehicles.
In Illinois on Thursday, Biden donned a red UAW shirt with the image of a fist and the words “We are Belvidere” on the back.
“These deals are game-changers. Not only for UAW workers, but for all workers in America,” he said. “Just ask the folks at Toyota, which last week announced it would significantly, finally increase wages for their workers. They had no choice because of what you did.”
“I want to thank you for your commitment to solidarity, for exercising your right to bargain,” Biden said, adding that the strikers had “changed the face of the country economically”.
“I’m a little selfish. I want this type of contract for all autoworkers. And I think the UAW has a plan for that. The future of the auto industry will be made in America, by union auto workers.”
The UAW strikes at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis — the first in the union’s 88-year history to target all three Detroit carmakers at once — resulted in tentative deals that will raise wages by 25 per cent, if a majority of the 146,000 UAW members ratify them.
The Belvidere plant became a bargaining chip in the union’s negotiations with Stellantis. The union eventually secured its reopening while also persuading the company to plough another $4.8bn into the plant, launch a new midsize pick-up truck, create a “megahub” for parts distribution, and potentially build a second assembly plant and battery plant.
“This one was personal,” said Fain, who once worked as an electrician at a Stellantis plant in Kokomo, Indiana.
“The world is never going to forget what saved Belvidere: the Stand-Up Strike,” he said: “The workers run this economy, and we, the workers, have the power to shut this economy down if it doesn’t work for the working class.”
The UAW has refrained from endorsing Biden, a seal of approval that would come with cash for his campaign and an army of foot soldiers.
But Biden appeared to enjoy speaking to a friendly audience, calling out to one crowd member, “I’ve been involved with the UAW longer than you’ve been alive, man.”
That easy back-and-forth contrasted with Biden’s lack of reaction when a demonstrator interrupted his remarks to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. At the protest outside, Ayah Ali, a former Rockford, Illinois resident and member of the Chicago Coalition for Justice in Palestine, accused Biden of being “as complicit as [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu” in Palestinian deaths.
“We refuse to allow Joe Biden to come into our neighbourhoods,” she said. “He’s not welcome here.”
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