On Tuesday, Joe Biden became the first sitting American president to walk a picket line. Specifically, he joined strikers and spoke briefly outside a General Motors facility in Van Buren Township, Mich., where hundreds of striking autoworkers were demanding their fair share of the profits they produced.
“You deserve what you earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now,” Biden said, speaking through a bullhorn. Biden was standing alongside Shawn Fain, the president of the U.A.W., who noted they were standing with Local 174, which had been built nearly 90 years earlier by Walter Reuther in the months before the sit-down strikes at General Motors in 1936, a struggle that concluded with a historic victory for the union.
“The victory over General Motors gave the U.A.W. great organizational momentum in the automobile industry,” the historian Irving Bernstein observed in “The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941.” By August 1937, just months after the union reached an agreement with General Motors, “it had 256 locals and had entered into 400 collective bargaining agreements. The latter were made with every important automobile and parts manufacturer except Ford, and the union was beginning to make inroads into the farm equipment and aircraft industries.” The U.A.W., in other words, had cleared the way for both the unionization of the domestic automobile industry and the growth of industrial unionism in general.
This is all to say that, however modest it was and however much it was driven by electoral calculations, Biden’s appearance was, in words he once used for a different occasion, a big deal. The president — once known, as a senator representing Delaware, for his devotion to the interests of banks and credit card companies — announced his allegiance to organized labor in a way that even Franklin Roosevelt declined to do.
And his commitment is not just words and symbolic actions. Biden’s National Labor Relations Board has been as supportive to unions and worker’s rights as any in recent memory. This summer, in fact, the N.L.R.B. issued a ruling that effectively revitalizes union organizing by forcing an employer to recognize a union if a majority of employees file authorization cards and the employer engages in an illegal unfair labor practice, like firing pro-union workers.
You can contrast Biden’s appearance on the picket line with former president Donald Trump’s Wednesday campaign rally at a nonunion auto parts supplier in nearby Macomb County. Whereas Biden spoke directly to the concerns of striking workers, and to their identity as workers fighting for their livelihoods, Trump railed against electric cars and tried, as usual, to stoke cultural divisions. “You can be loyal to American labor or you can be loyal to the environmental lunatics,” Trump said during his speech. “But you can’t really be loyal to both. It’s one or the other.” Speaking to unionized workers who weren’t there, he also told his audience that “Your current negotiations don’t mean as much as you think.” Trump has been a boss his entire life, and here, he was speaking like a boss.
The two events, held so closely together, were a stark illustration of the difference between an actual politics of class — informed, as it always is, by the particular histories, conditions and experiences of a particular group of workers — and a narrow politics of blue-collar cultural identity masquerading as a politics of class.
Make no mistake: Donald Trump might speak, at length, about his affection for workers in the abstract. But when it’s time to make policy, he is a clear and present enemy of the interests of labor.