US President Joe Biden’s decision to stand alongside United Auto Workers pickets today on the 12th day of their strike against major carmakers underscores support of labor unions that appears to be unparalleled in presidential history.
Labor historians say they cannot recall an instance when a sitting president has joined an ongoing strike, even during the tenures of the more ardent pro-union presidents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Theodore Roosevelt invited labor leaders alongside mine operators to the White House amid a historic coal strike in 1902, a decision that was seen at the time as a rare embrace of unions as Roosevelt tried to resolve the dispute.
Biden will be arriving one day before former US president Donald Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, goes to Detroit to hold his own event in an attempt to woo auto workers even though union leaders say he’s no ally.
Lawmakers often appear at strikes to show solidarity with unions, and Biden joined picket lines with casino workers in Las Vegas and auto workers in Kansas City while seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
But sitting presidents, who have to balance the rights of workers with disruptions to the economy, supply chains and other facets of everyday life, have long wanted to stay out of the strike fray — until Biden.
“This is absolutely unprecedented. No president has ever walked a picket line before,” said Erik Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and an expert on US labor history. Presidents historically “avoided direct participation in strikes. They saw themselves more as mediators. They did not see it as their place to directly intervene in a strike or in labor action.”