United States President Joe Biden is dispatching two members of his team to Detroit, Michigan, to help resolve a labour dispute between auto workers and car manufacturers that led to a strike.
In a speech from the White House on Friday, Biden called for a “win-win agreement” to resolve the impasse between the United Auto Workers (UAW) union and the country’s three main car manufacturers: Ford, General Motors and Stellantis.
The union had announced the partial strike — involving 12,700 workers at three key assembly plants — early on Friday, in an effort to push for wage increases, shorter hours and improved retirement benefits.
In his remarks, Biden expressed support for the union’s demand for higher pay.
“Over the past decade, auto companies have seen record profits — including the last few years — because of the extraordinary skill and sacrifices of the UAW workers,” he said. “Those record profits have not been shared fairly, in my view, with those workers.”
Biden added that he is sending Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and White House adviser Gene Sperling to Detroit to “offer their full support for the parties in reaching the contract”.
Biden’s direct involvement in the issue highlights the high stakes in the standoff, which has already halted the production of some popular US car models.
While the current standoff involves only three plants — spread across Michigan, Missouri and Ohio — a broader strike could lead to regional, if not nationwide, economic fallout.
“In these negotiations, the White House has no legal authority to really intervene or put its thumb on the scale,” said Al Jazeera correspondent Heidi Zhou-Castro.
However, she added that Biden is “showing to the American public that he is taking this very seriously — and rightfully so”.
This is the first time the UAW has targeted all three manufacturers with a strike simultaneously.
The UAW has demanded a 36-percent pay hike over four years, as well as the elimination of a tiered salary scale that requires workers to put in eight years before being eligible for the same compensation as veteran employees.
However, the “Big Three” carmakers have only offered a pay increase of 17.5 to 20 percent, without other benefits and the changes to the wage system demanded by the union.
UAW President Shawn Fain said the union would not call a broader general strike for now, but all options would be on the table if new contracts were not agreed to.
“They could double our raises and not raise car prices and still make millions of dollars in profits,” Fain said. “We’re not the problem. Corporate greed is the problem.”
Biden on Friday heaped praise on unions, saying that they are essential to building the US economy and strengthening the middle class.
“Workers deserve a fair share of the benefits they help create for an enterprise,” he said.
The Democratic president has presented himself as staunchly pro-union throughout his White House tenure.
But late last year, he faced criticism from progressives and labour groups when he signed a law to end a dispute between the country’s railroad companies and its unions. Critics said the law fell short of satisfying the workers’ demands for better working conditions, including paid sick leave.
The law averted a strike that Biden said would have been a “real disaster” for the US economy.