Hours after the start of an historic strike among workers at the “Big Three” US automakers, President Joe Biden has urged company leadership to continue negotiating with union leaders, stressing that workers deserve a “fair share” of record profits.
In brief remarks from the White House on 15 September, the president – who has previously pledged himself as the most “pro-union” president in American history – said that American auto companies have seen those record profits “because of the extraordinary skill and sacrifices” of United Auto Workers union members
“Those record profits have not been shared fairly, in my view, with those workers,” he said. “Auto workers … deserve a contract that sustains them and the middle class.”
Mr Biden also announced his administration will deploy two top aides to Detroit as both parties continue negotiations.
Thousands of members of the United Auto Workers union – which represents nearly 150,000 workers – struck at midnight on 14 September and walked out at three plants, including a General Motors site in Missouri, a Ford plant in Michigan, and a Stellantis centre in Ohio.
The president spoke with auto executives by phone and urged them to continue negotiating with the union before his recent trip for Asia, according to the White House. He also recently spoke with UAW president Shawn Fain, who met with the president in the Oval Office earlier this year.
“Let’s be clear, no one wants a strike, but I respect workers rights to use their options under a collective bargaining system, and I understand their frustration,” Mr Biden said on Friday, adding that a contract should be a “win-win” for both workers and auto companies.
The strike – the first time that a union has struck all three companies at the same time – is also the first national auto strike in roughly four years, following a strike against GM in 2019.
Union officials and auto companies remain far apart in negotiations over wages, benefits and worker schedules, among other issues. Leaders are asking for a 36 per cent pay increase over four years to match the rates of executive pay, as well as a reduced 32-hour workweek, a return to traditional pensions, the elimination of compensation tiers and a restoration of annual and automatic cost-of-living adjustments, among other benefits.
“This is our generation’s defining moment,” Mr Fain said in a Facebook Live address to union members before the strike deadline. “The money is there. The cause is righteous. The world is watching. And the UAW is ready to stand up.”
GM chief executive Mary Barra told CNN that the company’s officer of a 20 per cent pay increase over four years is a “very compelling officer … and that’s the focus I have right now.”
Ford CEO Jim Farley told CNBC that there is “no way we can be sustainable as a company” under the union’s demands. “You want us to choose bankruptcy over supporting our workers?” he said on Thursday. “Here’s our proposal: let’s work through this.”
The Biden administration has previously played a key role navigating high-profile union battles amid an historic period for worker organizing and other American labour actions, from averting a national rail workers strike to meeting with the faces of Amazon and Starbucks union leadership at the White House.
Deputy Labor Secretary Julie Su and White House adviser Gene Sperling will now head to Michigan to offer up the administration’s “full support” should the parties resume contract negotations, Mr Biden said.
“The bottom line is that autoworkers help create America’s middle class. They deserve a contract that sustains them in the middle class,” he said.