WASHINGTON — If President Biden wants to keep his “Union Joe” reputation with auto workers, he’s going to have to earn it as they barrel toward a strike this month over the transition to the electric vehicles he has championed.
“I’ve tried to be clear with people: The days of us just freely giving endorsements are over. Our endorsements have to be earned,” Shawn Fain, the aggressive new president of the United Auto Workers union, told the Globe. “We support a green economy. We have to have clean air, clean water … but this transition has to be a just transition. Workers can’t be left behind.”
As Biden’s electric vehicle push is gaining speed, UAW members worry they’re being left on the side of the road. Already saddled with major concessions they made to help save the nation’s auto industry in 2007, they’ve grown increasingly upset about lower-paying and often non-unionized electric vehicle jobs being created by the now-highly profitable Big Three automakers: Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, the Amsterdam-based parent company of Jeep and Chrysler.
The 150,000 UAW members at those companies recently voted almost unanimously to authorize a strike if their demands for large pay increases, a reversal of those 2007 concessions, and other significant changes aren’t met in negotiations before contracts with the Big Three expire on Sept. 14.
A strike is looking increasingly probable and a lengthy walkout in such a major manufacturing sector would be a hit to a vulnerable US economy. And Biden has a difficult balancing act as he tries to implement his industry-remaking policies while maintaining his promise to be the “most pro-union president in American history” ahead of the 2024 election. He won union households 56 percent to 40 percent in 2020, according to exit polls.
Some of the UAW’s frustration is focused directly on Biden, whose administration is doling out billions of dollars in loans and incentives for automakers to shift to electric vehicle production. The UAW said Biden isn’t doing enough to protect its workers in that process. So even as other large unions have delivered Biden early endorsements, the UAW has pointedly withheld its backing so far.
Fain was particularly upset about a $9.2 billion loan from the Biden administration in June to a joint venture between Ford and a South Korean company to construct three battery factories in Kentucky and Tennessee. The loan should have come with requirements on wages, working conditions, retirement benefits, and union organizing rights for workers at the new plants, Fain said. In response, he fired off a blistering statement asking, “Why is Joe Biden’s administration facilitating this corporate greed with taxpayer money?”
Biden’s allies point to his longstanding support of organized labor. And a White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the contract negotiations, said the president’s hands are tied on any additional conditions he can attach to some programs by restrictions in the laws that created them.
Biden tried to ease tensions with the UAW by publicly calling last month for “a fair agreement” that includes automakers paying wages “that can support a family.”
“President Biden, when it comes to the working class and the labor movement, has been very supportive since day one,” said Martin J. Walsh, the former Boston mayor who served as Biden’s labor secretary until stepping down in March.
Donald Trump has sought to capitalize on the frustrations and anxieties of union auto workers, a largely Midwestern demographic that gave him significant support in his previous presidential runs.
In a late July video message, the Republican presidential primary frontrunner said the UAW should endorse him. He accused Biden of “waging a war on the US auto industry,” warning the electric vehicle push would cause major job losses in the crucial swing state of Michigan, along with Ohio and Indiana.
But the record shows the opposite so far — overall auto manufacturing jobs have grown to 1.07 million under Biden, well above the high point under Trump, according to the latest Labor Department data. UAW membership rose 3 percent last year to 383,000, but that still was down from 397,000 at the end of 2020.
Fain said the UAW won’t endorse Trump based on his past anti-union statements and actions. But Fain, a former Chrysler electrician who took over in March, acknowledged that Trump’s warning about the perils of the electric vehicle transition could appeal to some auto workers if new contracts don’t address worker pay and job security.
“Saying things like that, our members, naturally their ears are going to perk up,” Fain said. “All our workers are seeing right now ... is this process, as it is, is costing our jobs and there’s nothing in this for us.”
Donald A. Foster Sr., 54, a union repair technician at Stellantis’ Detroit assembly plant, is a Democrat who voted for Biden in 2020 and said he doesn’t trust Trump. But Foster said he’ll reassess his views if there’s a strike and Biden doesn’t back the UAW.
“I can’t support someone who doesn’t support me and my best interests or my union brothers and sisters and their best interests,” Foster said. “I’ll just have to take a look at whoever the candidates are out there and see what their agenda is going to be.”
The White House appears to have gotten the message. In July, Biden tapped Gene Sperling, a White House adviser who worked on auto industry issues during the Obama administration, as his liaison to the UAW and the Big Three automakers during the contract negotiations. Biden’s Aug. 14 public statement about the talks was largely supportive of the UAW’s positions.
“The UAW helped create the American middle class and as we move forward in this transition to new technologies, the UAW deserves a contract that sustains the middle class,” Biden said.
And Fain complimented the administration on Thursday for announcing it would give more weight to projects that retain collective bargaining agreements or high-wage workers in a new $15.5 billion program focused on retooling existing auto factories to produce electric vehicles and batteries.
But avoiding a strike will be difficult. The negotiations got off to a contentious start in July when Fain declined to participate in the ceremonial handshake with the Big Three chief executives, a break from the cozy relationship past UAW presidents have had with management. Fain ran as an outsider after the union dealt with a wide-ranging corruption scandal.
“Our workers are being left behind and so I’m not about to shake hands with people that are treating our members that way,” Fain told the Globe. “If they want a handshake, they’ve got to give our workers their share of economic justice.”
He then angered Stellantis’ top North American executive by calling the automaker’s initial proposal “trash” and tossing it into a wastebasket during one of his frequent livestream sessions with union members in August. And on Thursday, Fain announced on another livestream that the UAW had filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board accusing Stellantis and GM of not bargaining in good faith. The companies denied the allegation.
“Our campaign slogan is simple: Record profits mean record contracts,” he told UAW members Thursday. “Our goal is not to strike. Our goal is to bargain a fair contract. But if we have to strike to win economic and social justice, then we will.”
The UAW wants a total 40 percent pay raise in the new four-year contracts, which Fain said is commensurate with the increase in profits by the automakers over the past four years, and eight hours of paid time off in each 40-hour week. The union also wants to restore cost of living adjustments it gave up in the 2007 concessions, as well as end a tiered system put in place then that restricts pay and benefits, including eliminating retirement health care, for new workers.
Fain has described the UAW’s starting point proposal as “audacious” but said workers are trying to make up for years of falling behind because of the 2007 concessions and the companies can afford it. GM immediately criticized the “breadth and scope” of the demands, saying they “would threaten our ability to do what’s right for the long-term benefit of the team.” But the Big Three automakers largely haven’t said much publicly about the UAW proposal since, except that they take the negotiations seriously.
The union sees this as the time to push for significant gains for its workers with the automakers doing extremely well financially and poised to do even better with the injection of public clean energy money from legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act, said Peter Berg, a professor of employment relations at Michigan State University. He noted that unions have been gaining in popularity with Americans in recent years, giving them more leverage in contract talks.
A Gallup poll released Thursday found that 67 percent of adults approve of labor unions, down slightly from last year but still near the highest level since 1965. And 75 percent of respondents said they sided with the UAW over the automakers in their negotiations.
Walsh said the administration’s electric vehicle push isn’t a threat to auto workers and the president deserves their votes.
“I think organized labor, we have to do a better job of explaining what President Biden has done for the labor movement since he’s been in office, and there’s a list I could probably fill up two Boston Globes with,” said Walsh, who has returned to the ranks of organized labor as head of the union for National Hockey League players.
The economic and political stakes are high with auto workers so concerned about their future. Representative Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, warned that she’s hearing some of the same frustrations that led her to correctly predict in 2016 that Trump would win the state.
“I’m in those union halls. I’m with union members every single day, and some of them are in the very same mood as they were in 2016,” she said. “We as Democrats have to do a better job of demonstrating to them what we’ve already done and how it is helping them.”