President Joe Biden and United Auto Workers leader Shawn Fain met Wednesday at the White House, a union official and a White House aide told POLITICO, as labor contract discussions are beginning between the powerful union and the Big Three automakers.
The meeting comes as Democratic officials and labor observers brace for a likely strike by UAW, which could have major economic and political ramifications. It also took place in the shadow of the UAW withholding its support from the president’s reelection campaign for the time being due to its concerns over his handling of the electric vehicle transition.
UAW spokesperson Jonah Furman told POLITICO that Fain asked for Biden’s support in contract talks with GM, Ford and Stellantis. Furman said Fain asked Biden to use his “bully pulpit” and pushed him to attach stronger labor provisions to federal grants and loans funded by the Inflation Reduction Act.
UAW’s contract with the car companies ends Sept. 14.
A White House official said that UAW asked to set up a meeting with Biden’s senior staff so that they could present their position on the labor negotiations with the automakers. When Biden heard about the meeting, the official said, he asked if he could speak with Fain privately. The two had a short discussion.
The meeting with top aides and UAW included Gene Sperling, who Biden has tapped as a point person on talks between UAW and the Big Three.
Fain declined to comment on specifics of the meeting with Biden.
“We’re just trying to do the right thing for our members right now,” Fain told reporters after a meeting with the Congressional Labor Caucus on Wednesday.
Fain said he was on Capitol Hill to tell lawmakers “where we are, what our members’ issues are and what needs to happen as the auto industry moves forward. It’s a very uneven playing field right now. The companies have been very profitable for a decade — a quarter of a trillion dollars in profits —- and our workers have regressed. So we’ve got to do better.”
The UAW has prodded Biden publicly over provisions and funding from the IRA, which is key to his political, economic and climate agenda. The union took aim at $9.2 billion in loans awarded to Ford last month, criticizing taxpayer support flowing to states with less favorable organizing rights like Kentucky and Tennessee.
“[Fain] knows that President Biden is one of the most pro-union presidents that we’ve had in this country,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who met with Fain on Wednesday, said in an interview. “But clearly President Fain is focused on an aggressive negotiation for his members.”
Biden has made shifting to electric vehicles a central part of his climate and economic strategy. He has sought to make all new vehicle sales electric by 2030, and his EPA has proposed vehicle standards that would require 67 percent of new vehicle sales to be zero-emissions by 2032.
The auto union has said it supports a transition to electric vehicles but is concerned about the quality of jobs in the emerging sector. The UAW has acknowledged the market is trending toward electric vehicles. But it has said the new federal funding contains too few provisions to encourage better standards for workers in the emerging batteries industry that will be central to electric vehicle employment.
Much of the UAW’s anxiety stems from transitioning out of factories where union members work on internal combustion engines to the emerging battery sector. But the U.S. battery industry is nascent and therefore has little connection to organized labor.
GM and Stellantis said in response to questions from POLITICO that they support workers’ rights to organize, including at facilities where joint ventures exist with other companies. Ford did not immediately return a request for comment.
“We believe the UAW, given their historic and constructive relationship in the automotive industry, would be well positioned to represent the workforce,” GM spokesperson Jeannine Ginivan said in a statement.
Fain is also meeting with House members and senators over the next couple days, according to multiple congressional aides and members.
Some lawmakers have shared the UAW’s worries that the Biden administration has not done enough to convince auto companies to improve standards for workers.
“I was disappointed in some of the deployment of that initial investment,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who has GM facilities in his district, said in an interview. “I want to see more in Michigan, and I want to see more on existing factory sites or existing facilities where we have a history of UAW contracts.”