Biden to Celebrate Auto Plant Reopening in Illinois

Biden to Celebrate Auto Plant Reopening in Illinois

President Biden plans to meet with the head of the United Automobile Workers in Belvidere, Ill., on Thursday to celebrate the reopening of an assembly plant and promote a landmark labor deal with Detroit’s Big Three automakers, a trip that could help him shore up critical union support.

The visit to the Stellantis plant comes as the company says it will also invest $4.8 billion to build a parts distribution center and an electric vehicle battery factory, both part of the agreement struck between automakers and the union last month.

Under the deal, the company will bring back at higher wages all 1,200 jobs that had been lost with the idling of the assembly plant and add an estimated 1,000 new union jobs, the White House said in a statement.

Administration officials have cast the trip as celebrating a momentous victory for union workers. But it is also an opportunity for Mr. Biden to cement his relationship with union voters at a key moment in the presidential campaign and draw a contrast with his predecessor and likely Republican challenger for the 2024 election, Donald J. Trump.

Both have worked to woo union voters, particularly in swing states where recent polling has shown Mr. Biden struggling, and Mr. Trump has had some success in peeling off members of the traditionally Democratic group. In September, the two made back-to-back visits to autoworkers in Michigan as the workers were striking for higher wages, although their messages on the value of unions were decidedly different.

Mr. Biden made history with his visit when he became the first president to appear on a picket line to support the striking workers. When word came down that the union had struck a deal with the automakers, Mr. Biden stepped away during a state dinner welcoming the Australian prime minister and called the U.A.W. head, Shawn Fain, to congratulate him, a senior administration official said.

“The union situation is a win for Biden,” said Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. He said that the president had taken “some pretty big political risks” showing up on a picket line and that “this is a credit-claiming moment for him.”

The meeting with Mr. Fain is part of a lengthy courting of the labor leader, who runs a union with about 400,000 active members, including a major presence in the swing state of Michigan. Mr. Fain has yet to give Mr. Biden the U.A.W.’s endorsement, but he has also outlined ambitious goals that would be much harder to achieve if Mr. Trump returned to the White House.

During Mr. Trump’s four years in office, the National Labor Relations Board often took pro-corporate stances and was actively hostile to unions. And while Mr. Biden visited picketing workers and voiced support for their strike, Mr. Trump visited a nonunion plant in Michigan and said union members “were being sold down the river by their leadership.”

Gene Sperling, Mr. Biden’s liaison to the U.A.W. and the auto industry, said the plant opening was a key element in the contract negotiations and called it a “huge victory” for the autoworkers. He said the deal with the union and the automakers reflected a vision Mr. Biden had long held.

“Even when he was working on his Build Back Better plan in the campaign, he would tell us he didn’t want a plan that sounded like, ‘We’re sorry you may lose your job, your plant and your community, but this is good for the overall economy,’” Mr. Sperling said. “He insisted on a strategy that says when you have technological disruption, we want companies to retool, reinvest and rehire impacted workers in that very same community.”

Mr. Sperling also described Mr. Biden’s long process of working to open the lines of communication with Mr. Fain, who has been critical of some administration decisions, such as its push for electric vehicles.

“His view was: We’re two guys from working-class backgrounds,” Mr. Sperling said of Mr. Biden’s response shortly before the president invited Mr. Fain to the Oval Office in July. The two have spoken on the phone several times since, including once when Mr. Biden called Mr. Fain to wish him a happy birthday.

Over the next four and a half years, Mr. Fain aims to organize at least some of the nearly two dozen nonunion plants that foreign automakers like Volkswagen and Toyota have built in Southern states. He also wants help from the federal government to push automakers to provide pensions or similar retirement benefits.

“We’re going to organize like hell,” Mr. Fain said Wednesday in a video address streamed on social media.

“We literally have hundreds of workers in non-unionized plants reaching out to us,” he said. “They see a better path now.”

The Belvidere plant was opened by Chrysler in 1965 and at one time employed more than 5,000 workers. It most recently made the Jeep Cherokee, but sales of that vehicle began declining a few years ago, and Stellantis, formed in a merger of Fiat Chrysler and France’s Peugeot, began laying off workers. It idled the plant in February.

Stellantis said none of its executives were taking part in Mr. Biden’s visit, as the new contract had not yet been ratified.

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