BELVIDERE, IL –
President Joe Biden donned a United Auto Workers red shirt Thursday as he celebrated a labor deal that will prevent the closure of the Stellantis plant in Belvidere, viewing the plant’s salvation as vindication of his decision to standing with the strikers as they demanded higher wages.
“American workers are willing to work harder than anyone,” Biden said as he applauded autoworkers at a community center in the northern Illinois city. “But they just need to have a chance. A fair chance and a fair wage.”
He praised union members as “as tough, tough, tough as they come.” Someone in the audience shouted to the president, “That shirt looks good on you.” »
“I wore that shirt a lot, man,” Biden responded. “You have no idea. I’ve been involved with the UAW longer than you.” The crowd burst into laughter.
Biden visited a UAW picket line in Michigan in September to support the union in its targeted strikes against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, the maker of Jeep, Dodge and Ram vehicles. The strikes are over and contracts are still being finalized.
“He came out and stood with the picketers,” said Matt Franzen, the local UAW president who introduced Biden. “He has always been for us, with us. He has proven it.”
Biden reminded the audience that Donald Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, visited a non-union facility during his own trip to Michigan.
“I hope you have a memory,” Biden said. “It matters where I come from.”
Biden’s re-election campaign released a video Thursday criticizing Trump’s record on auto and manufacturing workers, while showing the former president playing golf. Another clip shows Biden speaking through a bullhorn on the UAW picket line. “Joe Biden doesn’t just talk the talk, he keeps his promises,” the narrator says.
Biden learned that the Stellantis factory might close during a trip to Chicago on June 28, while he was speaking about the economy.
This prospect has become an immediate priority for Biden. He ordered an economic analysis and spoke to company officials about the plant, according to White House officials. The Democratic president wanted to show that his policies could benefit workers, rather than repeat the decades of factory closures that had ravaged parts of the Midwest and fueled deep political division.
The reopening “goes to the heart of who he is, to the heart of his vision for the country and how he has led,” said White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon.
Stellantis agreed to rehire 1,200 employees to build pickup trucks and add another 1,300 workers for a battery factory.
The resolution of the strike was an early victory for what Biden sees as a worker-centered economy. But the success of the factory and the tentative contract with workers will ultimately depend on whether automakers can continue to generate profits as they shift toward electric vehicles in a competitive market.
Many voters remain pessimistic about the economy overall, and it remains an open question whether the UAW contract and signs that wages are outpacing inflation can change their views. In polls, American adults have consistently given Biden poor marks on the economy after a burst of inflation as the pandemic began to recede.
O’Malley Dillon said the UAW contracts and reopening of auto plants reflect the president’s greater focus on workers. Union nurses, truck drivers and others have also negotiated wage increases by pushing their employers to recognize the value of their work. On Wednesday, Hollywood actors joined screenwriters in reaching a tentative agreement after a prolonged strike. This reflects a broader trend over the past year, enabled in part by a strong job market, with the unemployment rate at a healthy 3.9 percent.
Unions tend to be reliable supporters of Democrats. But by speaking at factories and union halls, Biden is also trying to reach disaffected working-class voters who have found a voice in Trump.
Biden argues that innovations in the auto sector, such as electric vehicles, should not lead to layoffs or factory closures.
Trump said the surge in electric vehicles backed by the Biden administration would lead to factory job losses. He suggested that work would migrate to China and that the United States should stick to gasoline-powered vehicles, even if emissions worsen climate change.
Biden has a slightly better record on auto industry jobs than Trump. Under Trump’s presidency, the number of manufacturing jobs in the sector peaked at just over 1 million in early 2019, then began to decline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are nearly 1.1 million auto manufacturing jobs under Biden.
The shift to electric vehicles poses a risk for automakers. Sales have started to slow due to concerns about charging and high vehicle prices, despite tax incentives designed to improve affordability.
On Thursday, Biden met with UAW President Shawn Fain and Gov. JB Pritzker, D-Ill. The president also held a fundraiser for his re-election campaign later Thursday.
During the nearly 45-day strike by automakers, the White House chose to talk to all parties while letting the UAW implement its strategy of targeted work stoppages. Biden made the decision to join workers on the picket line, a presidential first.
In calls White House officials had with Stellantis, the company was never pressured to open the Belvidere plant, but Biden raised the issue. His choice to sympathize with workers as the strike intensified carried some political risk, as high interest rates on auto loans and inflation resulting from the pandemic became points of criticism from lawmakers Republicans.
The contracts, if approved by 146,000 union members in the coming weeks, would significantly increase wages for auto workers. They would get pay raises and cost-of-living adjustments that would result in a 33 percent pay increase. Key assembly plant workers would earn about $42 an hour.
Megerian reported from Washington.