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Autoworker union not giving Biden an easy ride in 2024 as contract talks pick up speed

Autoworker Kevin Winston, left, talks with United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain outside the General Motors Factory Zero plant in Hamtramck, Mich., on July 12.
Paul Sancya
/
AP
Autoworker Kevin Winston, left, talks with United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain outside the General Motors Factory Zero plant in Hamtramck, Mich., on July 12.

With a newly elected union president and a new round of contract negotiations just underway, the United Auto Workers union is sending a message that the status quo isn't acceptable — either at the bargaining table or in politics.

Shawn Fain was elected to lead the union this past spring, signaling at the time that he was ready to shake things up. He's already making good on that promise.

In the days before negotiations on a new contract for some 150-thousand union members at General Motors, Ford and Stellantis got underway, Fain announced that the usual ceremonial handshake across the table featuring the union president and his corporate counterpart would be scrapped.

That photo-op has become a time-honored tradition in the Motor City, but Fain said no thanks. And in a pre-talks Facebook Live message to his membership, he was also unafraid to talk about the real possibility of a strike — even though bargaining had yet to begin.

"Whether we strike or not, it's up to the corporations," Fain explained. "If they give our members their equal share, their fair share, we're going to be fine. And if they don't, we're going to have to do all we have to do."

Electric vehicles and a decision to delay endorsing Biden

That's the contract talks part of the equation. In politics, that new tougher line has come in the form of a decision not to join other major labor organizations in giving President Biden an early endorsement in next year's election.

Biden has repeatedly called himself the "most pro-union president" in history. He often reminds audiences during speeches - related to labor issues or not - that workers have the right to organize and that unions built the middle-class.

Autoworkers Jalen Patterson, left, and David McHenry fill out a pledge in support of the UAW outside the General Motors Factory Zero plant in Hamtramck, Mich., on July 12.
Paul Sancya / AP
/
AP
Autoworkers Jalen Patterson, left, and David McHenry fill out a pledge in support of the UAW outside the General Motors Factory Zero plant in Hamtramck, Mich., on July 12.

Union members were one of the keys to Biden's success in defeating incumbent President Donald Trump in 2020.

But this year, the UAW says it still needs to see more from Biden before giving him its backing. The sticking point is electric vehicles.

The Biden administration is fully behind promoting the transition from the internal combustion engine to electric vehicles. The federal government has also provided billions in tax incentives and other means to encourage and help manufacturers make that shift. There've been tax breaks for consumers to purchase electric vehicles.

The problem the UAW, is that it sees it's members at risk of being left behind. Workers at plants that build electric batteries on average make far less than their counterparts in traditional represented factories.

UAW President Fain insists he's not opposed to a green-economy, but, "if we're going to do things for these companies to help this transition, labor can't be left out of the equation. And if they're going to leave labor out of the equation, then it's going to be hard for us to endorse any candidate."

Former President Trump sees an opening

Historically, UAW presidential endorsements go to Democrats and include the candidate marching alongside union leaders in the Detroit Labor Day parade. But the auto workers union's decision to hold-off on making any presidential endorsement prompted former President Donald Trump to make a pitch for himself. He did so in a 3 minute long campaign video.

Trump looks at the camera and reads: "I hope United Auto Workers is listening to this, because I think you better endorse Trump because I'm going to grow your business and they are destroying your business. They are absolutely destroying your business."

Trump will certainly get some auto worker votes, but an actual endorsement seems almost impossible. The UAW's Shawn Fain has said on more than one occasion that another Trump presidency would be "a disaster."

United Auto Workers member holds a sign outside the General Motors Factory Zero plant in Hamtramck, Mich., on July 12.
Paul Sancya / AP
/
AP
United Auto Workers member holds a sign outside the General Motors Factory Zero plant in Hamtramck, Mich., on July 12.

Rank and file UAW members are watching all of this closely. In conversations outside factory gates this month, they told NPR that they want better pay and cost of living adjustments. They're counting on the contract talks to deliver both.

As for politics, they are quick to tell you that they want the politicians they support to have their backs.

David Sandoval works at a factory where they build seats that are then installed in Chrysler trucks. He says Biden is not perfect, but that he continues to support the president.

"It's not going to be ten out of ten. It's going to be eight out of ten. And to me, that's still good. That makes him electable and makes me say I'm still going to vote for him in 2024," Sandoval explained.

Meanwhile, in the city of Wayne, Mich., UAW member Adam Kuk works at the plant that produces the Ford Bronco. Kuk has only worked on the assembly line for 2.5 years and says he's ready to strike for more pay if need be. He won't talk about who he's voting for, but says that he likes that his union is leaning on Biden.

"I think it's pressure that was needed. Like you're not just going to get our endorsement just because of your party lines. You're going to get our endorsement based on what you do in that office. Point blank."

Then Kuk adds for emphasis, "The whole UAW is changing."

This past week, the UAW's top leadership traveled to Washington to brief supporters in Congress on the status of the auto contract negotiations.

The trip included a stop at the White House for a West Wing meeting with advisors to the president. While there, the UAW president had a brief, unscheduled meeting with the U.S. president. There's been no formal readout of the conversation.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.