US auto workers expand strike as Biden prepares to join picket line

The United Auto Workers (UAW) union has expanded its strike against three of the major carmakers in the United States, with employees from 38 parts distribution centres joining in the protest.

Friday’s expansion affects plants owned by the companies General Motors (GM) and Stellantis across 20 states.

But the one company not affected is Ford, the third target of the strike. In a video conference on Friday, UAW President Shawn Fain indicated “real progress” had been made with the automaker.

“We still have serious issues to work through, but we do want to recognise that Ford is showing that they are serious about reaching a deal,” Fain said. “At GM and Stellantis, it’s a different story.”

The strike’s expansion could have serious consequences for US consumers, who may face shortages of car parts and higher vehicle prices if the walk-out continues over the long term.

With Friday’s additions, the strike now encompasses nearly 10 percent of UAW’s members or approximately 18,600 workers, up from around 13,000. The walk-out began last week with three assembly plants in Michigan, Missouri and Ohio, as workers pushed for a 36-percent pay increase over four years.

The UAW has also called for wider access to pensions, shorter hours and the elimination of a tiered salary scale that disadvantages newer employees.

The strike is the first in the UAW’s 88-year history — and it is set to make history again as US President Joe Biden prepares to make a visit next week.

“Tuesday, I’ll go to Michigan to join the picket line and stand in solidarity with the men and women of UAW as they fight for a fair share of the value they helped create,” Biden announced on social media on Friday.

“It’s time for a win-win agreement that keeps American auto manufacturing thriving with well-paid UAW jobs.”

Biden’s appearance on the picket line would likely be a first for a sitting US president in modern history.

“It’s very rare for a president to visit strikers,” historian and presidential scholar Jeremi Suri told the news agency Reuters. “This would be a major, major shift for Biden to identify the presidency with striking workers, rather than siding with industry or staying above the fray.”

Biden had previously expressed strong support for the UAW workers, saying last week that the automakers’ “record profits have not been shared fairly” with their employees.

But while Biden has touted his “pro-union” credentials, his decision to join the picket line comes after his main Republican challenger in the 2024 presidential race, Donald Trump, announced he too would visit the striking auto workers.

Both men plan to travel to the same state, Michigan, a historic centre for car manufacturing in the US. The UAW has not yet announced its endorsement for the 2024 race, but it previously backed Biden in his successful 2020 presidential campaign.

Trump, a former Republican president, has not yet said whether he would join the picket lines as Biden plans to do. So far, only a rally in Detroit has been announced.

United Auto Workers member Ron Oglesby holds a picket sign outside the General Motors Customer Care and After-Sales facility in Brandon, Miss., Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. Unionized workers joined others in new nationwide walkouts as the labor standoff continues. Oglesby wears a hat and a red shirt, and he points to his picket sign that reads, "UAW on strike."
United Auto Workers member Ron Oglesby demonstrates outside a General Motors facility in Brandon, Mississippi, on September 22 [Rogelio V Solis/AP Photo]

Still, Trump’s supporters were quick to bash Biden’s picket-line announcement as one-upmanship.

“The only reason Biden is going to Michigan on Tuesday is because President Trump announced he is going on Wednesday,” Trump adviser Jason Miller posted on social media, calling Biden’s trip “a cheap photo op”.

The ongoing strike will test the 2024 candidates’ allegiance to labour movements, as the American auto industry strains under the economic toll of the walk-out.

Anderson Economic Group, a consulting firm, said in a report that the three car companies involved — known as the US’s “Big Three” — have lost a total of $1.6bn in the first week of the strike alone.

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