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Democrats embrace Biden’s upcoming visit to Michigan UAW picket lines

As strikes against the Big Three Detroit automakers enter their 10th day Sunday, Democrats are praising a visit by President Biden to Michigan, scheduled for Tuesday, to show support for autoworkers on the picket lines.

The White House announced the news Friday, as United Auto Workers members walked out of 38 parts warehouses and distribution centers for General Motors and Stellantis in 20 states. The strike escalation, which spared Ford, added another 5,600 workers to the work stoppage for a total of 18,300 — about 12 percent of the union’s autoworker members.

Biden’s Michigan visit — which labor experts say is probably the first time a sitting president has visited a strike in at least 100 years — will come a day before his expected rival in the 2024 presidential race, former president Donald Trump, plans to deliver his own speech to hundreds of union members in Michigan.

“President Biden is doing what he has always done, which is to stand with American workers,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. Defending the president’s decision to visit, Buttigieg added that a strong deal would be a “win-win” for both parties: “Record profits should lead to record pay and record benefits for the workers.”

On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) also applauded Biden’s trip as a “historic event” warranted by the “crisis of inequality in our economy.”

Asked about UAW leadership’s decision to withhold an endorsement of Biden for now, Ocasio-Cortez said “it needs to be earned,” adding, “President Biden is working toward that, especially when he lands in Michigan on Tuesday to earn that.”

Progress north of the border

The strike against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis began Sept. 15 at three auto manufacturing plants in Michigan, Missouri and Ohio, which assemble the Ford Bronco, the Chevrolet Colorado and the Jeep Wrangler.

The expansion of the strike Friday focused on the warehouses that send parts to dealerships and other locations for vehicle repairs. That move could increase pressure on General Motors and Stellantis because more American drivers seeking these parts could feel the consequences of shuttered locations across the nation: Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Orlando, Boston, Reno and beyond.

See where UAW workers are striking or temporarily laid off

Negotiations between Ford and Unifor, the union that represents 5,400 Ford employees in Canada, have been running parallel to UAW’s bargaining with the Big Three in the United States.

Unifor announced Sunday that 54 percent of workers had voted to ratify a contract that includes wage increases of nearly 20 percent over three years for production workers, along with the reinstatement of cost-of-living allowances. Unifor said it was focused on reaching a deal with Ford first — one that could serve as a template before beginning talks with General Motors and Stellantis.

Canadian Ford workers will receive a 10 percent wage increase in the first year of their contract, faster progressions to top pay, improvements to pensions and the first cost-of-living adjustments since 2008.

Talks on the U.S. side also continued with Ford on Sunday, according to a person familiar with the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private negotiations, but it was unclear whether the parties continued to meet with Stellantis and GM.

UAW President Shawn Fain has said the union will not widen the strike against Ford for now, because the negotiations are progressing and the company has made further concessions. Those include Ford’s agreement to reinstate cost-of-living adjustments to wages and offer new job-security provisions. The union is continuing its current strike against one Ford factory in Michigan, however.

For its part, Ford said Friday it is working “diligently with the UAW to reach a deal that rewards our workforce and enables Ford to invest in a vibrant and growing future.” Ford added: “Although we are making progress in some areas, we still have significant gaps to close on the key economic issues. In the end, the issues are interconnected and must work within an overall agreement that supports our mutual success.”

The United Auto Workers strike is about more than just fair wages. For many on the picket line, they say it’s also a fight for the middle class. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

The trouble with wage tiers

Fain has said the reason for the new focus on warehouse workers is that they are often stuck on a lower pay scale than assembly-plant workers, with those hired after 2015 maxing out at $25 an hour after eight years of work. Although GM has offered to convert those workers to the top wage tier, the union also wants cost-of-living adjustments and other job security provisions for those workers.

Two striking UAW workers at the same plant, very different lives

On Friday, about a dozen workers were demonstrating outside a GM parts facility in an industrial area of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., that employs 72 people. They wore T-shirts that said “COLA and Fair Pay Now” and waved signs with slogans like “Saving the American Dream.”

One worker, Wornell Mitchell, said he has worked with GM for about five years and makes $55,000 annually when factoring in bonuses and overtime. He called working at the warehouse “a labor-intensive job,” where workers spend all day on their feet, with one 30-minute lunch break and one additional 20-minute break.

“Our wages don’t reflect what the company has made in revenue,” said Mitchell, a vice president of Local 6645. “They want to keep our wages low” even as their CEOs and top officers make bank.

“I honestly think they’re out of touch with reality,” he said of company leaders. “They’re not the ones doing the labor” that supports their salary.

The union is seeking a 36 percent wage increase over four years, improved retirement benefits, more paid time off and other perks. Full-time UAW workers today earn $18 to $32 an hour, plus annual profit-sharing bonuses that have totaled tens of thousands of dollars per worker over the past four years. Temporary workers earn $16 to $19 an hour and don’t get bonuses.

All of the automakers are offering raises of around 20 percent over four years and other perks that they say constitute their best offers in decades. They argue they can’t meet all of the UAW’s demands and remain viable companies capable of investing in the new factories needed for the costly transition to electric vehicles.

GM called the strike escalation on Friday “unnecessary” and accused union leaders of “manipulating the bargaining process for their own personal agendas.”

“We have now presented five separate economic proposals that are historic,” the company said. The 20 percent raise in its latest offer would boost 85 percent of GM’s UAW workforce to base-wage earnings of $82,000 a year by the end of the contract, the company said. It is also offering two weeks of paid parental leave and other perks.

Stellantis said it submitted a new offer with noneconomic proposals to the UAW on Thursday but had not received a reply. It said its 20 percent wage increase offer would boost all its full-time UAW workers to earnings of $80,000 to $96,000 annually by the end of the contract. The company also questioned “whether the union’s leadership has ever had an interest in reaching an agreement in a timely manner.”

On the picket line in Lansing

Meanwhile, outside the GM distribution center in Lansing, Mich., strikers this weekend expressed more mixed feelings about the high-level political attention expected in the upcoming week.

On Saturday, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) dropped off sandwiches and bagels for the picket line — a crowd made up of multiple generations of UAW families and Michigan State students — but declined to comment on the strike. Speaking to a few union workers, she said her office would be “checking in.” Whitmer had previously been in talks with automakers and UAW to avert the strike.

Dwight Jackson, president of UAW Local 1753, which represents striking workers in Lansing, said he had “mixed feelings” about Biden’s visit.

His caution, he said, stems from the Obama administration’s role in the 2008 federal bailout of the auto-industry, which in turn pushed the autoworkers to agree to major cuts in pay and benefits.

Autoworkers used to be the best-paid workers in the U.S. What happened?

“Is [Biden coming] here to support the workers or support the billionaires? If he comes to support the billionaires, we don’t need him,” Jackson said, noting that he doesn’t “separate Democrats and Republicans.”

Barry Webb, an autoworker, said he was excited by Democratic Party support but nervous about Biden’s move toward EVs. He spoke to Whitmer in the food tent on the picket line.

“I’m hoping he’s coming down for the right reasons, because I’m hearing he’s more into [EVs] than the union,” Webb said.

Wali Khan contributed reporting from Lansing and Flint, Mich.

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