LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The prospect of an autoworkers strike could test Joe Biden's treasured assertion that he's the most pro-union president in U.S. history.
The United Auto Workers is threatening to strike against General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, if tentative contact agreements aren't reached by 11:59 p.m. on Thursday. That could reshape the political landscape in the battleground state of Michigan and potentially unleash economic shockwaves nationwide.
The auto industry accounts for about 3% of the nation's gross domestic product and though union leaders say they are mulling strikes at a small number of factories run by those automakers, as many as 146,000 workers could eventually walk off their jobs. The effects would be most immediate in Michigan and other auto job-heavy states such as Ohio and Indiana. But a prolonged strike could trigger car shortages and layoffs in auto-supply industries and other sectors.
“Anything that goes beyond a week, you’re going to start feeling the pain," said Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. "And anything beyond two weeks, that’s when the effects start to compound."
Doc Killian, who has worked in a Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan, for 26 years, says he can no longer afford the cars he helps build, crystallizing how the nation's middle class has been squeezed.
“I think the American public as a whole realizes the impact that the American autoworkers have on the economy," Killian said. "If we suffer, the American economy suffers.”
Biden has built his political career around just such an argument, repeating the mantra that the “middle class built America, and that unions built the middle class.” His administration also has championed organized labor and promoted worker organization unabashedly, with Biden frequently proclaiming himself "the most pro-union president in American history.”
Still, Shawn Fain, who was elected president of the United Auto Workers in March after promising a more confrontational stance in negotiating with automakers, countered Biden's claim on CNN this week, saying, “I think there’s a lot of work to be done in that category.”
Fain also has also sought to broaden his argument beyond just autoworkers, telling a recent livestream that his union's demands are about “raising the standard for workers everywhere.”
“I truly believe that all of America will stand with us in this fight," Fain said.
Biden also must contend with blunt criticism from former President Donald Trump, the early leader in next year's Republican presidential primary, who is now pushing for the UAW to endorse him.
Trump posted online that the “once fabled” UAW “will soon go OUT OF BUSINESS” if Biden “is allowed to pull off his ALL ELECTRIC CAR HOAX. China will build them all. ENDORSE TRUMP!” In another post, the former president appealed directly to rank-and-file union members whose support helped him win Michigan in 2016: “Union leadership must decide whether they will stand with Biden and other far-left political cronies in Washington, or whether they will stand with front-line autoworkers and President Trump.”
That referenced new federal rules pushed by the Biden administration requiring two-thirds of new passenger cars sold in the United States to be all-electric by 2032. Trump argued that would "murder the U.S. auto industry and kill countless union autoworker jobs forever, especially in Michigan and the Midwest."
But some union leaders and members have scoffed at suggestions that the U.S. not embrace efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions since manufacturers in China and elsewhere could rush in to produce electric vehicles if the U.S. doesn't. Fain, who has previously applauded the “transition to a clean auto industry” as long as autoworkers “have a place in the new economy,” said Trump was “not someone who stands for a good standard of living.”