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United Auto Workers members walk the picket line Sept. 18, blocking a truck from entering a Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan.
Biden made history last week when he said he would travel to the nation’s auto capital to “join the picket line” with striking members of the United Auto Workers — days after Trump announced he was planning his own rally. The New York Times initially reported that the rally would be with union members, though the former president ended up speaking at a nonunion parts supplier whose workers are not striking.
But while some striking workers say they appreciate Biden’s gesture, others say it amounts to little more than a publicity stunt by a Democrat who has called himself the most “pro-union president in history” and has the record of policy achievements to back it up. None of the more than a dozen workers who spoke with HuffPost on Monday, on the eve of Biden’s fly-in, believed either his appearance or Trump’s would do much to resolve the strike — both Biden and Trump should expect to be greeted by a degree of cynicism on the ground here.
“Mind your own business,” said Dan Hall, a 66-year-old who’s worked at Ford for nearly 29 years, summing up his attitude toward the current and former presidents. “It’s not about them. It’s about us … the only thing they’re here for is votes. ‘See, I supported you!’ No, you didn’t — you came out here. Same thing with Trump.”
This view of Biden in particular undercuts the profile he’s cultivated as a middle-class hero from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who cares about the little guy. Biden affirmed his support for the striking workers at the beginning of the work stoppage after speaking with both sides and encouraging them to come to a resolution. The president said the Big Three — General Motors, Ford and Stellantis — have reaped “record profits” that “have not been shared fairly, in my view, with those workers.”
Biden will touch down in Detroit on Tuesday before jetting to high-dollar fundraisers in California’s Bay Area. The White House hasn’t released details on whether he’s specifically heading to the picket line at Michigan Assembly, one of the first three plants to go on strike 12 days ago. On Friday, the UAW expanded its work stoppage to 38 additional sites across the country, including 13 more in Michigan.
Trump, meanwhile, is holding a rally in nearby Macomb County on Wednesday night. The former president’s event is happening at the same time as the second Republican presidential debate in California, which Trump has said he would not attend. Trump has attacked Biden over the strike, saying his rhetorical support of the UAW is worth little if he continues to support a transition to electric vehicles, which require fewer workers to assemble.
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain (center) invited President Biden to the picket line amid the union's historic strike.
UAW leadership has been far friendlier to Biden even as they’ve refrained from endorsing anyone in the presidential race. UAW President Shawn Fain invited Biden to the picket line and has slammed Trump as the embodiment of the “billionaire class.”
Neither Biden’s campaign nor Trump’s responded to requests for comment.
The 2024 election wasn’t at all top of mind at Michigan Assembly, where striking workers are required to pick up six-hour shifts picketing a busy stretch of U.S. 12 fronting the 5-million-square-foot plant. The people who work here said they were striking to be able to afford their groceries and mortgages. Several said they couldn’t afford to buy the Ford Broncos and Rangers they help manufacture. One worker told HuffPost she borrowed money from her 401(k) to be able to go on strike because of the benefit she hoped a successful strike action would provide her in the future.
Asked about Biden’s California fundraiser also planned for Tuesday — which will cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a head to attend — Nikeya Brown said she voted for Biden and continues to support him but hopes the president realizes that people are really struggling. She also pointed out how her union has been a major political backer of Biden’s — although the UAW has so far withheld its endorsement of Biden for 2024 while also saying it has no intention of supporting Trump, the likely GOP nominee.
“If we can throw out all these billions of dollars to all these other countries — I’m not saying they don’t need help — but if we don’t fix home first, we can’t help anybody else,” said Brown, who has worked on the line at Ford for two years. “Right now we’re struggling. We’re losing. And I appreciate that he wants to come out here and support and do the right thing.”
The dueling appearances highlight the electoral significance of Michigan, a swing state that Trump won in 2016 in part by appealing to white blue-collar workers with promises to renegotiate trade deals and get tougher on China. The UAW’s former president estimated that 28% of its membership voted for Trump in 2016, representing a shift away from Democrats.
CNN’s exit polling from the 2016 election revealed that 51% of union households voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton while 42% backed Trump. Four years later, Biden claimed 56% of union households while Trump’s support dipped to 40%.
If we can throw out all these billions of dollars to all these other countries ... but if we don’t fix home first, we can’t help anybody else.Autoworker Nikeya Brown
Many of the striking workers described themselves as swing voters. “My job is very important to me and my family, so if you can help me out with my job, that’s how you can sway me,” said Chris Jedrzejek, 44, who has worked at Ford for 24 years. “I wish there was a third option out there. Inside the plant, there’s so many Trump supporters I talk to. There’s a lot of Democrats — not too many Biden supporters, but there’s a lot of Democrats in there.”
Marisa Beck, 40, said she’s voted for Democrats but has moved to the center more recently, while her co-worker Toni Jarrell, 42, has voted for Republicans but has also found herself seeking to “reevaluate both parties.” Both women, who began working together in 2007, say they dislike comments Biden and Trump have made about their union and its members.
“Both have said damaging things, as far as I’m concerned,” Beck said. “Their support shown during a moment when we are on strike is appreciated. I don’t know what they could say that I would believe. It’s a political year.”
Even with a steady job with Ford, Beck said she struggles to make ends meet with a house, car payment and child. “I feel like we set the precedent for the middle class,” she said.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Toledo, Ohio — where UAW members have been striking against Stellantis, which makes Jeep Wranglers and Gladiators — said Biden would be welcome at any picket line. Kaptur has previously lauded Biden’s efforts to fight “tirelessly for the survival of our industrial heartland” and introduced him at a 2020 campaign rally at a Toledo union hall with Jeep workers.
She questioned what Trump, who renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), now called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), has done specifically for union workers. “Where was he when we fought NAFTA? Where was he in 2008 when we had the big financial crash and the automotive companies were belly up? Where was he? So now he’s going to show up in Detroit? Really?”
Kaptur doesn’t just represent the district that encompasses the Jeep factory; Her father was a union member who worked for Jeep until 1969. “It was a friendly place,” she said. “The people who worked there lived in our community, grew up in our community, their fathers and mothers had worked in the industry. There was a real sense of place and community.”
Justin Nelson, a 47-year-old Ford veteran, said he hopes the strike ends as soon as possible — and, unlike some of his colleagues, he welcomes the gusher of attention that accompanies the dueling visits.
“I love this company. They’re going to be the ones to lead this change and give their people enough to afford the vehicles that they’re making,” Nelson said. “I think the more publicity the better for this.”
Language in this piece has been updated to reflect that Trump did not hold a rally with striking autoworkers, despite initial media reporting that suggested he would.