Among Michigan's Striking Autoworkers, a Tepid Welcome for 'Union Joe'

Fears of electric-vehicle-induced layoffs loom over Biden's trip to the picket line

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
September 26, 2023

WAYNE, MICHIGAN—President Joe Biden on Tuesday received a tepid welcome from striking autoworkers in the Detroit area, with many expressing concerns about his support for electric vehicles.

"I have a lot of mixed emotions about Biden being here today," said Casey Rutner, who builds trucks for Ford. "I want my job to be here in the future, not for me—but I have a son. I had hoped he would work for Ford one day too. With electric vehicles, now I'm not so sure."

Rutner is a member of the United Auto Workers, which earlier this month kicked off the country's largest strike in decades. The union wants the "Big Three" automakers—Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, which makes Chryslers—to guarantee higher wages and benefits, particularly in the face of expanded electric vehicle production. Autoworkers are nervous about losing their jobs as the industry increases production of electric vehicles, which require about 40 percent less manpower to build, according to Ford CEO James Farley.

Union members' opposition to electric vehicle production has put them at odds with Biden, who often boasts that he is the "most pro-union president" in history. Biden has praised General Motors chief Mary Barra for her efforts to ramp up electric vehicle production, and his Democratic allies in Congress since 2021 have passed tens of billions of dollars in tax credits and subsidies to boost demand and production for electric vehicles.

To some union members, Biden's 12-minute visit to the picket line doesn't offset his support for electric vehicles.

"He hasn't really shown us anything. He's giving companies all these big incentives to push towards electric vehicles and it's going to eliminate our jobs as UAW members," Jason Richards, who drives a forklift at a Ford plant, told the Washington Free Beacon. "It takes a whole lot less people to build an electric vehicle than a gas-powered vehicle."

Biden on Tuesday became the first sitting president to join a picket line, a fact the White House repeatedly trumpeted in advance of the trip. But his stop at the picket line outside a General Motors warehouse in Van Buren Township was brief. In his remarks, Biden said employees deserved pay hikes and boasted about his past union activism.

"I marched a lot of UAW picket lines when I was a senator since 1973," Biden shouted through a megaphone. "But I tell you what, first time I've ever done it as president."

Some union members accused Biden of trying to score political points by joining workers a day before former president Donald Trump is scheduled to visit the picket line. Days before the White House announced Biden's visit, Trump announced his intention to skip the second Republican presidential debate to travel to Detroit.

"I think his visit was a little late," said Tamika Ellis, who works on an assembly line for Ford. "I'm OK with the electric vehicle transition, as long as our jobs are safe."

Whether the electric vehicle transition continues apace remains to be seen. Consumer complaints about a lack of charging stations have raised doubts about the feasibility of a predominantly electric vehicle fleet, as have congressional investigations into Chinese ties to American plants that make electric vehicle batteries.

As polls show Biden trailing Trump in 2024, the White House is looking to shore up support for the president among crucial voting blocs, including union members. But United Auto Workers, which backed Biden in 2020, has thus far withheld its endorsement of his reelection campaign.

United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain, who met with Biden on Tuesday, has expressed reservations about the electric vehicle transition.