Biden backs Tesla, Toyota unionization, slams Trump

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By Nandita Bose

BELVIDERE, Illinois (Reuters) -President Joe Biden on Thursday backed the United Auto Workers' efforts to unionize carmakers Tesla and Toyota and asked auto workers to reject his Republican opponent, Donald Trump.

Biden spoke to UAW workers in Belvidere, Illinois, as the Democratic president tries to rally support for his economic agenda and firm up sagging popularity numbers, ahead of a re-election campaign next year.

Donning a red UAW T-shirt, Biden congratulated Shawn Fain, the head of the UAW, and highlighted the tentative contract agreements between the union and Detroit's Big Three Automakers that ended a nearly 45-day strike.

"I want this type of contract for all autoworkers," Biden said in Belvidere.

En route to the event, Biden told reporters that he “absolutely” supports the UAW's efforts to unionize Tesla and Toyota workers.

In response to Biden's remarks, Toyota said it wants to "foster positive morale" and boost productivity in its workforce. "The decision to unionize is ultimately made by our team members," the Japanese automaker said in a statement.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the remark by Biden, who has backed UAW efforts in other speeches.

Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, visited a nonunion factory in Michigan in September while Biden joined a picket line with striking UAW workers, Biden reminded workers.

"I hope you guys have a memory," said Biden. "Where I come from, it matters." While union workers represent only 10% of the U.S. workforce, their support in states like Michigan was key to Biden's election in 2020 and is expected to play a big factor in 2024.

Fain previously said the union would seek to organize the nonunion workforces in the U.S. plants of foreign carmakers. Union leaders have signaled Toyota could be one of the first to face those efforts, especially at its sprawling Georgetown, Kentucky, plant.

MUSK'S ANTI-UNION STANCE

Biden's comments may renew friction between the U.S. president and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, especially as the UAW seeks to organize Tesla workers.

The UAW has tried and failed for years to organize nonunion U.S. auto factories, most of them built by Asian and European legacy automakers in southern U.S. states, where so-called right to work labor laws make it optional for workers to pay union dues.

Musk and Biden sparred in recent years, and in 2021 Musk said Biden's electric-vehicle policy appeared to be controlled by labor unions. Biden first publicly acknowledged Tesla's EV production in February 2022, after Musk repeatedly complained about being ignored by the president.

Recently, the UAW tried and failed to win enough support from workers at Tesla’s Fremont, California, factory to hold an organizing vote. The plant was a UAW shop when it was jointly owned by GM and Toyota and known as NUMMI.

The UAW filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over a 2018 Musk tweet in which he asked "why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing." The NLRB ruled the tweet violated laws prohibiting management threats against workers for supporting unionization.

PRESIDENTIAL ENDORSEMENT?

Thursday's appearance once again allowed Biden to showcase his pro-union credentials to the UAW, which has yet to endorse him, unlike most other labor organizations.

In September, UAW's Fain ruled out meeting Trump, casting him as an out-of-touch billionaire, who does not have "any bit of care about what our workers stand for, what the working class stands for."

Labor leaders and Democratic officials said an endorsement from the UAW for Biden is expected after the union's members approve their tentative contract agreements, which dramatically raises pay for auto workers and ended a strike targeting General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, the maker of Jeep, Dodge and Ram vehicles.

The relationship between Biden and Fain "didn't start as cozy as it is now," said Mark Burton, a partner at the law firm of Honigman and a former chief strategist of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat.

But Biden taking on a "more supportive but silent role" during the UAW negotiations improved the relationship, Burton said, adding that Biden "has formed a good working relationship with Shawn Fain and I think the near-term result will be an endorsement."

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and David Shepardson in Washington and Sayantani Ghosh in San FranciscoWriting by Steve HollandEditing by Heather Timmons, Ben Klayman and Matthew Lewis)