Last week, Joe Biden became the first sitting U.S. president to join a picket line when he visited striking United Auto Workers (UAW) members outside a GM parts facility in Belleville, Michigan.
“You guys, UAW, you saved the automobile industry back in 2008 and before. You made a lot of sacrifices, gave up a lot when the companies were in trouble,” the president said to picketing workers. “But now they’re doing incredibly well, and guess what? You should be doing incredibly well too.”
The president has voiced support for the UAW’s strike at the Big Three automakers since it began on September 15. But after former President Donald Trump announced plans to hold a campaign rally at a non-union auto parts plant near Detroit — which the media grossly mischaracterized as “Trump standing with striking autoworkers” — Biden was pushed by fellow Democrats to visit a UAW picket line.
As a candidate in 2019, Biden joined workers on picket lines, including striking GM employees. Candidate Bill Clinton also walked a picket line in 1992, as did candidate Barack Obama in 2007. But no president has ever joined a picket line while in office until today.
On the campaign trail, Obama promised workers that, if elected, he would “put on a comfortable pair of shoes” and “walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America” — a promise he never fulfilled. As Obama’s vice president, Biden rebuffed a request from Wisconsin labor leaders in 2011 to join their massive protest against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s push to curtail public sector union rights.
Biden’s UAW picket line visit reflects the fact that the strike by union workers is so popular that the leader of the most pro-capitalist country on Earth believed being seen standing alongside them was politically advantageous.
“This is absolutely unprecedented. No president has ever walked a picket line before,” labor historian Erik Loomis told the Associated Press.
Labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein similarly told the Guardian, “This is genuinely new — I don’t think it’s ever happened before, a president on a picket line.”
Presidents and picket lines
Almost three years into his term, much ink has been spilled debating whether Biden is living up to his promise to be the “most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history,” and today’s event will undoubtedly further fuel that discussion.
But what often goes unmentioned is what a low bar it is to earn the distinction of most pro-union president in U.S. history. Far from joining picket lines, most presidents have firmly sided with bosses, if they weren’t bosses themselves.
This is a segment of a blog that originally appeared in full at In These Times on September 26, 2023. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.