Biden spent weeks of auto strike talks building ties to UAW leader that have yet to fully pay off


President Joe Biden called the head of the United Auto Workers union to congratulate him this past week on getting a new contract with General Motors and to wish him a happy 55th birthday — a sign of how the relationship had evolved since their first get-to-know-you meeting in the Oval Office on July 19.

UAW President Shawn Fain launched the strike against GM, Ford, and Chrysler-owner Stellantis with a willingness to force political leaders to choose between backing unions or corporations. Biden had long straddled this line. He proclaimed in speeches that unions built the middle class, but he also heralded his credentials as a former senator from the “corporate capital of the world,” also known as Delaware.

The White House was determined to build trust with Fain and look past his occasional slights of Biden. That approach, which included Biden meeting with workers on the picket line in Michigan, helped to resolve the nearly 45-day set of strikes and produced significant pay raises for workers.

But even as Biden’s sympathies publicly shifted toward union workers during the standoff, there are few signs that the UAW fully warmed to the Democratic president. Biden has yet to receive the union’s endorsement as he seeks reelection with the message that he has delivered for blue-collar workers.

The UAW declined to talk about its relationship with the White House. No final decision on the endorsement is expected to come until after contracts with the automakers are finalized, which probably will happen later this month.

The relationship between Fain and Biden could be crucial to the outcome of the 2024 election. More than 380,000 UAW members are scattered in states that include Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, places where narrow margins have decided the overall winner of the past two presidential contests.

Gene Sperling, the White House liaison for the strike talks, was in daily contact with executives at the UAW and the three automakers. Biden tasked the economic adviser who has served in three Democratic White Houses to develop a bond with the UAW but also preserve connections with the automakers that are helping to deliver on Biden’s electric vehicle agenda.

Sperling told The Associated Press that he followed a set of principles in communicating with all sides: “We’re not here to intervene. We’re not here to mediate. But we want to be in touch. We want to be helpful.”

As the weeks stretched on, though, Biden and his team did less straddling and publicly stepped ever closer to the union.

At one point, Sperling stressed to the automakers the UAW’s position that new contracts needed a built-in cost-of-living adjustment so that wages could be adjusted for inflation. That adjustment became part of the tentative agreement, which for GM workers also includes a 30% pay bump through April 2028, when the contract would expire.

Biden staked out his position that the autoworkers had made sacrifices during the 2008 financial crisis to keep their employers afloat. Now that automakers were pulling in billions of dollars in profits, the president said, those same workers should share in the rewards.

The politics were thorny as the president has suffered from low ratings on his economic leadership. U.S. adults have largely overlooked the healthy 3.9% unemployment rate to focus instead on inflation, including the 20% jump in new vehicle prices since he became president.

But union households have also been a decisive constituency for Democrats. They represent only 16% of voters nationwide, but Biden won the group by a solid 56% in 2020, according to AP VoteCast, a national survey of the electorate.

While organized labor has overwhelmingly backed Biden, the UAW remains a key holdout. Fain has criticized Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, yet in the weeks leading to the strike and afterward, the labor leader could be out of sync at times with Biden.

When Fain went to the White House on July 19 to meet with senior officials, Biden insisted on a 30-minute meeting in the Oval Office without aides, Sperling said.

But Labor Day showed cracks in relations between the union and the White House. Asked by reporters about prospects for a strike that had yet to be declared, Biden tried to play down the risk.

“I’m not worried about a strike until it happens,” Biden said on Sept. 4. ”I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Fain responded to a separate group of reporters by suggesting that Biden was misguided: “He must know something we don’t know. Maybe the companies plan on walking in and giving us our demands on the night before. I don’t know, but he’s on the inside on something I don’t know about.”

Sperling said the president was trying to be supportive of the unions with his comment. When the president saw how his remarks were interpreted, he called Fain directly to clarify.

Biden had multiple conversations with the automakers and Fain before the Sept. 15 strike deadline. When it became clear that a targeted strike would occur at a select number of plants, Biden showed his support for the UAW. He issued a statement that borrowed UAW language and said that Sperling and acting Labor Secretary Julie Su would go to Michigan to help with talks.

But the UAW did not want administration officials to come during the first week of the strike, Sperling said, because of the message it might send about the status of negotiations. By that point, there was enough trust that the misunderstanding did little from the White House perspective to hurt the relationship. Sperling and Su met twice in person that next week with the negotiators.

Yet Fain took umbrage at Biden publicly suggesting that the negotiations had broken down and that this had led to the strike.

“We agree with Joe Biden when he says ‘record profits mean record contracts.’ We don’t agree when he says negotiations have broken down,” Fain said in a statement.

UAW officials told Sperling that Fain really wanted Biden to visit the picket lines, not as a political event but as a show of support for workers. Biden liked the idea. After that invitation was accepted, Sperling relayed to the automakers that Biden would meet with striking workers. The companies were unhappy but it did not derail talks.

Biden’s Sept. 26 visit to a Michigan picket line — a presidential first — garnered praise from Fain, but little else. The UAW president declined to endorse the president who had engaged in the historic outreach.

“We’ll just see how things proceed,” Fain told The Associated Press at the time. “That’s up not just to me. It’s up to our leadership and our membership. And we have our process we follow. So as I said we’ll do that when it’s time.”

Still, the White House saw itself as building trust with the UAW as the talks progressed. Ford reached a tentative deal on Oct. 25, followed by Stellantis on Oct. 28, and GM was on the verge of a deal.

Sperling, boarding an unrelated red-eye flight, texted GM CEO Mary Barra and a UAW official to message him in case there was an agreement while he was mid-air. As soon as a tentative agreement was in place, Barra told the gathered negotiators that she needed to text the White House.

 United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain wants to expand the union’s battle from the Detroit automakers to Tesla

Toyota Motor, and other non-unionized automakers operating in the U.S.

The outspoken leader plans to use record contracts recently won after contentious negotiations and U.S. labor strikes with General MotorsFord Motor, and Chrysler-parent Stellantis to assist in the union’s embattled organizing efforts elsewhere.

“We’ve created the threat of a good example, and now we’re going to build on it,” Fain said Thursday night when discussing Stellantis’ tentative agreement. “We just went on strike like we’ve never been on strike before and won a historic contract as a result. Now we’re going to organize like we’ve never organized before.”

Doing so would greatly assist the union’s bargaining efforts and membership, which has been nearly halved from roughly 700,000 members in 2001 to 383,000 at the beginning of this year. UAW membership peaked at 1.5 million in 1979.

The UAW has previously failed to organize foreign-based automakers in the U.S. Most recently, plants with Volkswagen and Nissan Motor fell short of the support needed to unionize. The UAW has previously discussed organizing Tesla’s Fremont plant in California with little to no traction in those efforts.

It remains to be seen whether the recent efforts are gaining traction at any other automakers, but Fain has vowed to move beyond the “Big Three” — Ford, GM, and Stellantis — and expand to the “Big Five or Big Six” by the time its 4½-year contracts with the Detroit automakers expire in April 2028.

Sec. Buttigieg: The outcome of UAW deals is 'a level of assurance' on quality of life for workers
Sec. Buttigieg: The outcome of UAW deals is ‘a level of assurance’ on quality of life for workers

The deals include 25% wage increases that would boost top pay to more than $40 an hour, reinstatement of cost-of-living adjustments, enhanced profit-sharing payments, and other significant pay, healthcare, and workplace benefits. The contracts must still be ratified.

The union has already received significant interest from non-union automakers in light of the tentative agreements, Fain said. And last month, he rejected comments from Ford Chair Bill Ford arguing the company and union should be working together to battle non-American automakers.

“Workers at Tesla, Toyota, Honda, and others are not the enemy — they’re the UAW members of the future,” Fain said.


Fain has taken particular aim at Toyota in recent days.

The automaker earlier this week confirmed plans to hike wages at its U.S. factories. The new rates would see hourly manufacturing employees at top rates in Kentucky receive roughly 9% pay increases to $34.80 an hour.

Fain on Thursday called that pay raise “the UAW bump,” joking that UAW stands for “U Are Welcome” to join the union’s movement.

UAW President Shawn Fain marches with UAW members through downtown Detroit after a rally in support of United Auto Workers members as they strike the Big Three auto makers on September 15, 2023 in Detroit, Michigan.
UAW President Shawn Fain marches with UAW members through downtown Detroit after a rally in support of United Auto Workers members as they strike the Big Three auto makers on September 15, 2023 in Detroit, Michigan.
Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

“Toyota isn’t giving out raises out of the goodness of their heart,” Fain said. “They could have just as easily raised wages a month ago or a year ago. They did it now because the company knows we’re coming for ’em.”

Toyota, which has 49,000 hourly and salaried U.S. workers, said the “decision to unionize is ultimately made by our team members.”

“By engaging in honest, two-way communication about what’s happening in the company, we aim to foster positive morale which ultimately leads to increased productivity,” the company said Friday in an emailed statement. “Working together has provided a history of stable employment and income for our team members.”


The UAW has so far not been able to establish enough support to force an organizing vote at Tesla’s facilities, including its Fremont, California, plant where the union previously represented workers when it was a GM-Toyota joint venture.

Fain on Thursday told Bloomberg News he believes organizing Tesla and taking on CEO Elon Musk is “doable.”

“We can beat anybody,” Fain told Bloomberg. “It’s gonna come down to the people that work for him deciding if they want their fair share... or if they want him to fly himself to outer space at their expense.”

Still, Musk has historically clashed with union proponents.

As some workers sought to form a union at the company’s Fremont factory in 2017 and 2018, Tesla was paying a consultancy named MWW PR to monitor employees in a Facebook group and on social media more broadly, as CNBC previously reported.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and owner of X, arrives for the Inaugural AI Insight Forum in Russell Building on Capitol Hill, on Wednesday, September 13, 2023.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and owner of X, arrives for the Inaugural AI Insight Forum in the Russell Building on Capitol Hill, on Wednesday, September 13, 2023.
Tom Williams | Cq-roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

Tesla also terminated the employment of a union activist named Richard Ortiz in 2017. And in 2018, Musk said in a tweet, “Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing?”

The tweet violated federal labor laws, the National Labor Relations Board later found.

An administrative court ordered Tesla to reinstate Ortiz and to have Musk delete his tweet, which it concluded had threatened workers’ compensation. Tesla appealed the ruling, and Musk’s offending post remains on the social media platform that Musk now owns, has rebranded as X, and runs as CTO and executive chairman.

In February, a different group of organizers filed a complaint with the NLRB claiming that Tesla had fired more than 30 employees at its Buffalo facility in retaliation for a union push thereby Tesla Workers United. Tesla called the workers’ allegations false, saying 4% of its Autopilot data labeling team in Buffalo had been terminated due to performance issues.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency responsible for enforcing civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, sued Tesla in September, alleging widespread racist harassment of Black workers, and retaliation against those who spoke out.

And in late October, just over 100 of Tesla’s service employees in Sweden, members of the industrial labor group IF Metall, walked off the job for a short strike. Hundreds of mechanics and technicians at non-Tesla shops also agreed not to repair any of the EV makers’ cars in solidarity. However, Tesla has so far refused to negotiate with IF Metall.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway on Saturday reported a big jump in third-quarter operating earnings, while sitting on a record amount of cash that surpassed $157 billion.

The Omaha-based conglomerate’s operating earnings — which encompass profits made from the myriad of wholly owned businesses such as insurance, railroads, and utilities — totaled $10.761 billion last quarter. That’s 40.6% higher than the $7.651 billion earned from the same quarter a year ago.

Berkshire held a record level of cash at the end of September — $157.2 billion — topping the $149.2 billion high set in the third quarter of 2021.

The “Oracle of Omaha” has been taking advantage of surging bond yields, buying up short-term Treasury bills yielding at least 5%. The conglomerate owned $126.401 billion worth of such investments at the end of the third quarter, compared to about $93 billion at the end of last year.

Buyback activity continued to slow down as Berkshire shares soared to a record high during the quarter. The firm spent $1.1 billion to repurchase shares, bringing the nine-month total to approximately $7 billion.

Berkshire Class A shares have rallied nearly 14% this year. After reaching an all-time high on Sept. 19, shares have fallen about 6% from the peak.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post