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Lawmakers back striking auto workers, but mileage varies

Some members of Congress have praised the United Auto Workers’ walkout as a revolt against unfair labor conditions, but others have used it as a vehicle to attack the Biden administration’s electric cars campaign.

WASHINGTON (CN) — As tens of thousands of auto workers walked off the job Friday, part of a historic strike, members of Congress quickly went to bat for the beleaguered laborers, backing union demands for better wages, hours and job security.

The United Auto Workers’ strike — which began after contract negotiations broke down between the labor union and the “big three” Detroit automakers — has so far enjoyed bipartisan support. Despite that, lawmakers appeared divided on what, or who, was to blame for this landmark walkout.

The UAW has demanded that its members receive a 36% wage increase over the next four years, as well as an end to tiered wages for factory workers and the restoration of certain retirement benefits. Negotiations with the big three automakers Ford, General Motors and Stellantis disintegrated after the companies each returned significantly lower counteroffers.

It’s the first time in the union’s 88-year history that it has declared a strike against all three Detroit auto manufacturers.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats have placed the onus for the strike squarely on the shoulders of automakers, arguing that industry executives have failed to share the wealth with their employees.

“The Big Three are making historic profits,” said Michigan Senator Gary Peters in a post on X, the site formerly known as Twitter. “It’s time for workers to get their fair share.”

Peters joined a UAW picket line in his home state Friday morning, saying in a video message that the strike was part of a broader effort to grow the country’s middle class.

“This union strike is important not just for the UAW, but for American workers all across the country as well,” said the Michigan Democrat, who was filmed while holding a picket sign while protesters cheered in the background.

Several other Democratic lawmakers also joined picket lines in shows of support for auto workers, including Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown traveled to a Jeep manufacturing plant in Toledo, Ohio, where he chanted “no justice, no Jeeps” alongside striking plant employees.

“The ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay in this plant is 365 to 1, and they’re telling workers to keep making these concessions,” Brown said.

Democratic leaders urged automakers and the union to quickly resolve the labor dispute.

“I urge the Big Three and UAW to work in good faith to reach an agreement that is fair to workers, and includes a restoration of the benefits that autoworkers sacrificed more than a decade ago to keep these families afloat,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. The Illinois Democrat appeared to allude to a $17 billion federal loan agreement reached with the auto industry during the 2008 financial crisis, which lowered wages and benefits of union workers.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer also pushed for good-faith negotiations between the union and automakers, saying the striking workers were “fighting for better wages, better benefits, and safer working conditions.”

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans were quick to back auto workers — but they also took the opportunity to heap blame on the Biden administration for what they said was a disastrous electrification policy that has exacerbated the industry’s financial woes.

“Auto workers across the Midwest [are] on strike due to Biden and his demagogues’ obsession with unreliable and unaffordable Electric Vehicles that no one wants to buy,” said Kansas Senator Roger Marshall in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “Democrats have all but mandated EVs on Americans to fulfill [an] agenda with no infrastructure or consumer demand to sustain them.”

Missouri Senator Josh Hawley echoed those complaints.

“Every dime the auto industry is spending on Joe Biden’s radical climate mandates should be spent on workers,” the lawmaker wrote. “They deserve better wages, better hours, and a guarantee their jobs will be safe — not shipped off to China.”

Among its climate goals, the Biden administration has said it aims to have 50% of all new vehicle sales be electric cars by 2030. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act included tax incentives for consumers looking to purchase electric vehicles and allocated funds to build out a national EV charging network.

Republican attacks on President Biden’s electrification push come as the 2024 presidential campaign gets underway. A striking auto industry could prove to be a potent electoral message as the GOP seeks to take back the White House.

Meanwhile, around 13,000 UAW workers have walked off the job in the early hours of the strike, largely from auto factories in Missouri, Michigan and Ohio. Union president Shawn Fain said workers at other sites may join the strike later on if contract negotiations continue to stagnate.

Automakers have fretted about what meeting the union’s demands would do to labor costs. Ford CEO Jim Farley told CNBC Thursday that acquiescing to the UAW would have bankrupted the company.

Moments after a strike was declared, Fain told CNN Friday morning that Farley’s comments were “a joke.”

“They could double our pay right now,” Fain said. “The cost of labor that goes into a vehicle is 5% of a vehicle. They could double our wages and not raise the price of vehicles and they would still make billions of dollars. It’s a lie like everything else that comes out of their mouths.”

A protracted strike could eventually result in vehicle shortages and could force manufacturers to hike prices on car sales nationwide.

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