WASHINGTON — In 2009, as the Obama administration scrambled to keep the industry afloat during the Great Recession, the United Auto Workers union agreed to its second set of givebacks in two years that included a wage freeze and lower pay and benefits for new employees.
Joe Biden was vice president at the time, and one of his top aides, Jared Bernstein, now chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, was part of the negotiations for a federal rescue of General Motors and Chrysler. Amid the talks, Biden praised “the further sacrifices that the auto workers have made” in a deal that ultimately included the closure of a GM plant in his home state of Delaware.
That experience paved the way for his historic visit to Michigan on Tuesday, where he became the first sitting president ever to join a union picket line.
The union went on strike this month at facilities run by the Big Three automakers because workers believe the now highly profitable companies owe them significant increases in pay and benefits after UAW members made those major concessions more than a decade ago.
Biden — nicknamed Union Joe because of his strong support for organized labor — has made it clear he hasn’t forgotten the earlier concessions, as the UAW strikes against GM, Ford, and Stellantis, the Europe-based parent company of Chrysler and Jeep.
“The fact of the matter is that you guys, the UAW, you saved the automobile industry. . . . You made a lot of sacrifices. You gave up a lot. And the companies were in trouble,” Biden told striking workers in Belleville, speaking through a bullhorn while wearing a UAW hat. “But now they’re doing incredibly well. And guess what? You should be doing incredibly well, too.”
Several factors could have contributed to Biden’s decision to take the unprecedented step, including pressure from fellow Democrats to get more involved, a still-pending UAW endorsement, Michigan’s crucial role in his reelection hopes, and Donald Trump’s visit on Wednesday night to speak with union workers. But organized labor experts said the UAW’s 2007 and 2009 concessions, combined with the strong financial rebound by the automakers in recent years and the industry’s seismic shift to electric vehicles, make this strike unique.
And those concessions were at the heart of Biden’s decision to make history on the picket line, said Gene Sperling, the White House liaison to the UAW and the Big Three automakers.
“He is impassioned about the notion that the auto workers sacrificed so much to help revive the companies,” said Sperling, who also served on the Obama administration’s auto task force, noting Biden has stressed that sacrifice repeatedly to his White House team. “I think he believes in that Great Recession period, that was painful but necessary sacrifice. So for him, the notion that when those companies then survived and started to thrive and started to make significant profits, they had an even greater obligation than usual to pay back their workers.”
Biden has noted in the past that his father once sold Chevrolets. And given his middle-class upbringing and longtime backing of unions, Biden feels labor issues “more viscerally” than past presidents, said John Logan, a professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University. Biden saw firsthand the sacrifices the UAW made when he was vice president, and the union’s efforts now to regain some financial ground fit into his broader economic agenda.
“For Biden, this was a total no-brainer,” Logan said of the decision to join the UAW picket line. “Biden can say that this is really about the fight for a fairer, more just economy.”
Fairness for his membership has been central to UAW president Shawn Fain’s argument as he highlighted what union members gave up to help rescue the industry.
“They were blamed for everything during the economic recession. That was wrong. That was a lie,” Fain told the Globe in an interview last month. “They made all the sacrifices and they haven’t recognized virtually any gains since that time 17 years ago.”
In 2007, the average US auto worker made about $28 an hour, said Marick Masters, a management professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who coauthored a 2021 book about the UAW. Adjusted for inflation, that wage would be about $42 an hour now. But because of union concessions, the typical auto worker makes $30 an hour, he said.
“They have a pretty powerful case for raising their wages just based on where they were in 2007 to where they are today,” Masters said. The union’s request for an approximately 40 percent pay increase over the four-year contract — which Biden endorsed during his visit to the picket line — would bring the average worker to about $45 an hour.
The union is also seeking to end the wage tiers put in place in the 2007 concessions that gave incoming workers lower pay and fewer benefits, including no pension plan or health care when they retire. GM immediately criticized the UAW demands when they were made this summer but the companies have largely refrained from commenting publicly on the union’s demands as negotiations continue.
“In the moment, they protected current workers over future workers. That was the compromise. New people would come in at a lower wage,” Peter Berg, a professor of employment relations at Michigan State University, said of the UAW concessions. “These lower tier workers are growing and it’s creating animosity and disgruntlement.”
Fain, who was elected in March after running as an outsider in the wake of a union corruption scandal, has said he wants a fair transition for workers as automakers build more electric vehicles. Biden’s push for more electric vehicle production has created tensions with the UAW. Fain has complained that some federal incentives to automakers haven’t included requirements on wages, working conditions, retirement benefits, and union organizing rights for workers at new plants.
“If you see this as a pivotal point, you want to set a foundation that you can build upon. And the UAW is saying, ‘We don’t want to keep a lot of these concessions we made and have that be the foundation,’ " Berg said. “ ‘We want to reset, and then use that as the foundation to grow.’ ”
The UAW, which endorsed Biden in 2020, has withheld its backing so far, saying he must earn it again. But Fain sounded supportive when he joined Biden on the picket line Tuesday outside a GM parts distribution center.
“Thank you for coming to stand up with us in our generation’s defining moment, and we know the president will do right by the working class,” Fain told the workers.
Asked later on CNN about an endorsement, Fain said he was focused on the strike. But he made clear the UAW would not endorse Trump, saying the former president doesn’t care about workers and serves the “billionaire class.”
In response to a reporter’s question about the UAW endorsement Tuesday, Biden said, “I’m not worried about that.” He focused his short remarks on the picket line on the sacrifices the workers made.
“You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now,” he told them. Asked afterward by a reporter if UAW workers should get a 40 percent pay increase, Biden said, “Yes, I think they should be able to bargain for that.”
The automakers can afford significant raises and other unions are watching to see how this unique strike turns out, Logan said.
“If the UAW gets a positive settlement it will embolden other workers and unions to make demands,” he said. “This may not be the last time [Biden’s] asked to go on the picket line.”