Joe Biden had to choose a side in the United Auto Workers’ contract fight with the “big three” American automakers, and he did. This week, he became the first US president to walk a picket line while in office when he joined strikers in Belleville, Michigan, offering enthusiastic support for their demands. Biden should be thanking the UAW for handing him a golden opportunity: to prove that the green jobs his administration is creating will be good, union jobs, too, and that climate policy will bear dividends for the working class.
Republicans cosplaying solidarity have tried to exploit the strike to score cheap political points. As Republican presidential hopefuls debated this week, Donald Trump told a rally at a non-union plant in Michigan that the strike wouldn’t “make a damn bit of difference” because the car industry was “being assassinated” by “EV mandates”. (Whether there were any union members or even autoworkers in the room isn’t clear.) Ohio senator JD Vance has similarly blamed autoworkers’ plight on “the premature transition to electric vehicles” and “Biden’s war on American cars”.
These are cynical, false talking points from politicians who couldn’t care less about autoworkers – but they aren’t going away. (Although similar lines are old hat in the US, they’re finding new purchase in places like 10 Downing Street: Rishi Sunak, the British prime minister, has recently taken a “U-turn” on climate goals, citing “unacceptable costs” for “hard-working British people”.) Optimistically, the UAW strike could be a chance to dismantle the rightwing myth that reducing emissions hurts working people – not by pointing to the jobs that will trickle down from the bosses of the energy transition, but by standing with the unions fighting to make those jobs better.
Being willing to go on offense against automakers’ bad behavior is a great start and a big shift. The Biden administration has routinely praised car manufacturers as climate heroes poised to decarbonize the country and create millions of middle-class jobs along the way, turning the industry into a sort of mascot for its climate agenda. “You changed the whole story, Mary,” Biden told General Motors’ chief executive, Mary Barra, a frequent White House guest, in 2021. “You electrified the entire automobile industry. I’m serious.”
White House climate policy will be good for Barra and her colleagues at the top. The business-side tax credits and government-backed loans furnished by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) are already helping the big three retool factories to produce EVs and their component parts. The IRA’s consumer-side subsidies for American-made electric cars – worth up to $7,500 – will boost demand.
Yet no one should confuse companies taking advantage of tax breaks with a commitment to the climate fight. The big three lag well behind their competition in the US and abroad; federal incentives are helping them play catch-up. They’ve lobbied to undermine fuel efficiency and clean car standards, including through front groups like the Automotive Alliance. Like oil and gas companies, GM and Ford knew for decades that their products fueled climate change, and proceeded to double down on gas-guzzling models and political attacks on laws and regulations that might hem in their emissions. They still bankroll the campaigns of Republicans dead-set on stopping climate policy.
Neither is it a given that EV subsidies benefiting companies will benefit workers there, too. Automakers are already using electrification as an excuse to supercharge attempts to ship jobs to less union-friendly states, and split workers off from their master agreement with the big three.
Biden’s decision to join the strike would be remarkable on its own. Beyond the obvious symbolism, his presence there lends tangible material support to workers’ demands, handing the union leverage over companies that might otherwise reasonably assume he’d have their backs.
It could also usher in a broader shift in the way he and other Democrats talk about climate policy. Impressive as the IRA is, its most direct benefits accrue largely to companies and consumers with enough cash on hand to afford up-front payments for big-ticket items like solar panels and heat pumps. Like Bidenomics more generally, its goal isn’t to reduce emissions so much as to build out domestic supply chains for clean energy goods, making US companies less reliant on and more competitive against Chinese firms in sectors that will be increasingly important over the coming decades.
Targeting climate policy at corporations and affluent consumers doesn’t make a great counterargument to Republicans eager to frame it all as elitist virtue signaling, and win elections accordingly. What the Republican party can be reliably expected to do, though, is side with the bosses. That’s where even self-professed “car guy” Joe Biden might be able to set himself apart – by being willing to offend the automakers so that the rewards of America’s green industrial policy aren’t hoarded at the top.
Standing alongside Biden in Belleville this week, the UAW president, Shawn Fain, offered as good a framing for that approach as any. “This industry is of our making,” he said. “When we withhold our labor, we can unmake it. And as we’re going to continue to show: when we win this fight with the big three, we’re going to remake it.”
Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at the New Republic and the author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet – And How We Fight Back