The president has highlighted his pro-union credentials, but inflation has eroded blue-collar livelihoods and chilled support for the president on the picket lines.
Sept. 18, 2023Updated 1:19 p.m. ET
President Biden, who calls himself the most pro-union president ever and has sided with striking United Auto Workers — calling for “record contracts” as the union walked out on Friday — has yet to convince many rank-and-file U.A.W. members that his sentiments are more than just nice-sounding words.
That was the prevailing view in interviews with two dozen striking workers for Ford and Jeep in Michigan and Ohio this weekend. Many, including some who voted for him, said inflation had so undercut their wages that they felt pushed out of the middle class, laying the blame with Mr. Biden.
Despite the president’s “middle class Joe” persona, and his potential 2024 rival Donald J. Trump’s record and rhetoric undermining unions, many autoworkers were not convinced that the current Oval Office occupant was the one more forcefully on their side.
“I can’t tell when he speaks to the public if he’s being told to say it or if he’s genuinely saying it,” Jennifer Banks, a striking worker, said of Mr. Biden’s pro-union remarks on Friday during which he unequivocally backed the U.A.W.
Ms. Banks, a 29-year Ford employee, was picketing on Saturday at the company’s vast Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne. A sign outside Gate 2 warned, “Absolutely no foreign vehicles allowed!”
The ambivalence toward Mr. Biden underscores an ongoing challenge to his re-election, as Democrats try to stanch any more bleeding of blue-collar support after three years of inflation and high interest rates.
Mr. Trump, in the meantime, has continued to appeal to union voters, renewing his attacks on China, immigrants and liberal priorities like renewable energy, issues that fueled his historically large inroads with white, working-class voters in 2016 and 2020.
Ms. Banks, 50, a political independent who voted for Mr. Trump in 2020, said that in a potential rematch between him and Mr. Biden she would be torn, because she doesn’t like much of what Republicans stand for.
“I think our president is not as strong a president as we need,” she said. “I’m hoping somebody can replace him. I hope it doesn’t leave me no choice but to vote the other way.”
An hour’s drive south of Wayne, Beverly Brown was the strike captain for a team of workers who attach the hoods to Jeeps at the massive Toledo Assembly Complex in Ohio. “No Justice, No Jeeps” was written on a vehicle’s window. Ms. Brown, 65, voted for Mr. Biden but said that when it came to backing working people, “I don’t think he’s doing enough.” Neither did she view Mr. Trump as an ally of working people, saying, “Everything he’s done up until now proves otherwise: He’s for the rich.”
On Friday, 13,000 workers at three Midwest plants, owned by Ford, General Motors and Stellantis — the parent of Jeep and Chrysler — walked out in what the U.A.W. called a targeted strike, demanding nearly 40 percent raises over four years, the end of a two-tier system in which newer workers get lower pay, and the restoration of benefits that the union gave up during the Great Recession in 2008.
Despite Mr. Biden’s decades-long emphasis of his roots in Scranton, Pa., and his well-honed brand as a hero for the middle class, strikers did not necessarily see him as their champion. Their wages, which range from $18 to $32 an hour, have eroded significantly amid rising prices, many said, with an apparent political cost to the White House.
A lengthy strike that reduces the supply of cars and drives up prices could force the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates high, with repercussions for Mr. Biden’s re-election.
“Back when I hired in here, there was a middle class,” Garth Potrykus, 68, a longtime electrician in the Ford plant, said. “The middle class — they’re gone.”
Ford, he said, hires waves of temporary workers who earn below fast-food wages. “They might hang around two or three weeks, then they go down to McDonald’s and they make more money,” he said. “How are those people ever going to afford the, quote, American dream?”
Mr. Biden has centered his re-election campaign around the idea of “Bidenomics,” his record of infrastructure, high tech and clean energy spending aimed at creating good industrial jobs and shrinking income inequality. Despite those broad policies, Mr. Potrykus, eyeing his own expenses, said he didn’t see either Democrats or Republicans as fighting for the working class.
“I don’t think either party is really interested in that,” he said. “It’s a war on us now. You’ve got the super rich and then you’ve got the poor.”
That many union workers don’t automatically align with Democrats and reject Republicans, who often support policies that suppress blue-collar pay, has confounded Democratic strategists since at least the era of the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s. Large numbers of Republicans in Congress last year sponsored legislation to weaken organized labor by allowing workers in all 50 states to opt out of union dues.
Mr. Trump, who also supports “right to work” laws, has a mixed record on organized labor. In office, he renegotiated a North American trade deal to give more protections to American workers. But lately he has attacked U.A.W. leadership, saying in an interview broadcast Sunday that its leaders, along with the carmakers and the Biden administration, were in cahoots to force a transition to electric vehicles made in China.
While union leaders almost universally endorse Democrats for president because of their pro-labor agendas, a sizable rank-and-file contingent votes Republican, often over conservative social issues.
In 2020, Mr. Trump won about four in 10 voters in union households, according to exit polls and an internal survey by the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Michael Podhorzer, a former longtime A.F.L.-C.I.O. political director, said that was hardly surprising. “The demographics of union members are the ones who’ve been trending away from Democrats for quite some time,” he said. This is particularly true of industrial unions.
Mr. Trump emphasized “a set of issues that union members never agreed with Democrats on,” most prominently immigration, Mr. Podhorzer added. Despite the trend, union members still tend to vote five to 10 points more Democratic than similar voters who are not in unions, he said.
“People don’t join unions because they’re Democrats or liberals,’’ Mr. Podhorzer said. “People are in unions because that’s where they work.” It’s misguided to expect that “they should be voting like MoveOn members,” he added, referring to the progressive policy group and political action committee.
But the union’s membership is not monolithic in its voting patterns. Younger strikers, and particularly nonwhite U.A.W. members, were not as critical of Mr. Biden. Anthony Thompson, 54, said that he, too, struggled to make ends meet, in part because his wife, Uleana, has lupus and medical costs mean the family ends up living paycheck to paycheck.
But Mr. Thompson, who joined Ford two years ago and has worked up to $20 an hour, did not blame the president. “I would say he’s doing the best under the circumstances that he can,’’ Mr. Thompson said.
Jason Grammer-Gold, 42, a striker at Jeep, said that Mr. Trump’s promises to rebuild the industrial heartland “was all talk” and that he left office with little to show for it.
“I don’t feel Trump is for the working American at all,” he said. “His presidency was to get his taxes down.” Mr. Grammer-Gold said that he, his husband and their adopted child recently moved from Ohio across the border to Michigan to live in a state where Democrats control government. “Republicans are passing tons of anti-gay laws,” he said.
Outside Gate 2 at the Jeep plant, two longtime workers who met on the strike line, Ronald Flores and Frank Luvinski, each said their pay didn’t go as far as it used to, but they had opposite views of Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump.
“In 2018, I felt like I had finally gotten ahead,” Mr. Luvinski, 52, a Trump supporter, said. “I finally had money in my bank account. And now, I make more money than ever, and I have less. My energy bill just doubled in June.”
Across the street, Mr. Flores, 56, had parked his white Jeep Gladiator pickup. “We built that right on the line,” he said. Peeling back a piece of interior carpet, he showed where co-workers signed their names on painted steel.
Mr. Flores’s grandfather, son and multiple cousins have been union autoworkers, jobs that helped them build comfortable lives. He drew an analogy between his employer, whom he respects, his truck and Mr. Trump’s campaign promises.
“If you say you want to make something great again, when you leave, greatness should continue,” he said. “You leave a legacy. Like Jeep has a legacy. The brand speaks for itself.”