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Biden and Trump to visit picketing autoworkers during historic strike

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden will be in Detroit today to visit autoworkers in the midst of an historic strike. And whether he picks up a sign and walks the picket line himself or not, it's still a profound gesture to the labor movement from a president who has said he identifies with that movement and is also looking for union endorsements in the 2024 election. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential contender, is skipping a GOP debate tomorrow and heading to Michigan to meet with workers at an auto supplier. We wanted to hear more about the political significance of these dueling visits, so we called Jefferson Cowie. He is a professor of American history at Vanderbilt University with a focus on the labor movement. Good morning.

JEFFERSON COWIE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So what does it say to you that a sitting U.S. president is heading to a picket line to show his support for striking workers?

COWIE: Well, this is unprecedented territory. We've never seen a sitting president go to a picket line. And the fact that it's up against a completely different view of what working class politics should be, that of Donald Trump, is absolutely fascinating. I think it's a very rich and juicy moment in working class politics.

MARTIN: So how do you understand President Trump's decision to go to Michigan also?

COWIE: Well, Michigan is a key swing state for him, of course. He won it once and barely lost it another time, so making inroads into that sort of typical sort of stronghold of the United Auto Workers is really important to him. Whether he'll be able to do it this time, I don't know.

MARTIN: Well, he did - I mean, in 2016, I think the data shows that he did appeal to blue collar workers, opposing trade deals, promising to bring back American jobs. You know, he lobbed tariffs against China, which unions appreciated, but he also pursued policies that were not union friendly. And, you know, worth noting that his cabinet was, like, the most - the richest cabinet sort of in terms of personal wealth in history.

COWIE: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So could he convince rank and file workers that he stands with them and actually cut into what Biden is trying to do?

COWIE: Of course he can. The question is, can he do it big enough? And I think this is a battle kind of over the hearts and minds of especially white working-class voters. I mean, whether they can be won over over race and nationalism and sort of the usual Trumpian rhetoric or whether we'll see a shift back toward the economic interest, the sort of Rooseveltian, New Deal vision that Biden has, I think, is really the centerpiece of this drama. And for Biden to get out there, who has been absolutely clear about his politics on labor, is really exciting. I think, in some ways, it's more typical for Trump to try this than it is for a sitting president. It's a place where candidates go. Candidates always go to picket lines. Presidents never go to picket lines.

MARTIN: Interesting. So President Biden won the UAW's endorsement in 2020. The union has yet to back a candidate for 2024. Should President Biden and, say, the Democrats more broadly be worried about this?

COWIE: No, it's too early. And, you know, Shawn Fain has made it clear he's ready for their support to be earned, in his words, and I think that Biden is doing it very much right now. And he said - the president of the United Auto Workers said, if you want to support us, come walk the picket line. That's where the rubber meets the road for us, and that is exactly what Joe Biden is doing in this rather shocking move.

MARTIN: So - but, you know, memories can be short.

COWIE: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Do you think that these trips this week will make any difference next year when voters are actually going to vote?

COWIE: I think that's a really interesting question. The real issue, I think, is whether this is the beginning of a rolling shift that might culminate a year from now in a kind of more economic agenda for the American working class, which we haven't really seen for quite a long time. Labor's vote has been presumed by the Democrats, but there hasn't always been that much of a payoff. In this particular instance, we might be seeing much more of a shift towards an economic interest within the Democratic Party and within the working class. And I think that would be an exciting historical move back to kind of sort of where we were before the 1970s.

MARTIN: OK, that is Professor Jefferson Cowie. And I want to mention, he won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in history for his book "Freedom's Dominion: A Saga Of White Resistance To Federal Power." Congratulations on that, Professor Cowie, and thank you for joining us.

COWIE: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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