Biden won the UAW’s endorsement with a speech at the conference

The United Auto Workers union endorsed President Biden on Wednesday, giving him an influential boost as he faces a battle against former President Donald J. Trump to win the support of labor groups.

Mr. Biden, who calls himself “the most pro-union president in history,” delighted striking UAW workers but angered auto industry executives when he appeared at a protest with workers last fall. Months later, Shawn Fain, president of the UAW, told a national labor conference that Mr. Biden has a track record of helping working-class people organize for higher wages, better pensions and health care.

“This is about nothing but our best attempt to take power for the working class,” Mr. Fain said Wednesday after a lengthy speech comparing Mr. Biden’s past pro-union speeches to Mr. Trump’s lack of support and appearances at non-union facilities. He called Mr Trump a “scab” – short for someone who refuses to support a union.

“This election is about who will stand with us and who will stand in our way,” Mr. Fain said as many in the crowd rose to their feet. “Our support has to be earned and Joe Biden earned it.”

The value of the endorsement, which the UAW delayed last year amid concerns about Mr. Biden’s commitment to promoting good jobs in electric vehicle manufacturing, may lie less in persuading members to support Mr. Biden than in motivating them to vote. The union has estimated that only about 30 percent of its members supported Mr. Trump in 2016. But without formal union support and investment in turnout, Mr. Biden could suffer a decline in members turning out to vote in critical states like Michigan.

“Elections aren’t just about picking a best friend for work or a candidate who makes you feel good,” Mr. Fain said. “Elections are about power.”

With Mr. Trump all but locking up the nomination after his performance in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, Biden campaign officials said the race between the two candidates had only just begun.

In his remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Fain, a former vocal critic of Mr. Trump, did not mince his words. Mr. Fain referred to the financial crisis of 2008, emphasizing the previous rhetoric of Mr. Trump against the unions then and as a presidential candidate. He then recalled Mr. Biden’s comments, as vice president, that “the nation bet on American auto workers and won.” Those in attendance shouted obscenities about Mr. Trump. “I like the energy,” Mr. Fain replied.

Mr. Fain, accompanied by a slide show and visual aids, said Mr. Trump “didn’t say anything” to support auto workers during labor disputes as president, “because he doesn’t care about the American worker.” He compared Mr. Trump’s September appearance at a union-free factory to photos of Mr. Biden on the picket lines, prompting attendees to stand and chant, “JOE! JOE! JOE!”

Still, Mr. Fain made the president work for approval.

Mr. Biden has appeared at several UAW events to prove his bona fides with the group’s leadership and rank-and-file. In September, Mr. Biden grabbed his son and joined auto workers on strike in Michigan, becoming the first president to join a series of protests in an extraordinary show of support for workers demanding better wages. When the contract was won, Mr. Biden wore a red T-shirt and appeared before celebrating workers in Illinois.

“I’ve been involved with the UAW longer than you’ve been alive,” the president, then 80, told a raucous crowd at an event in November after the union reached an agreement with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis on a contract that included wage increases and re-opening of factory in Belvidere, Ill.

At the event, he blasted Mr Trump for insisting that electric vehicles would lead to the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs.

“Well, like almost everything else he’s said, he’s wrong,” Mr. Biden said at the time. “And you proved him wrong. Instead of lower wages, you made record gains. Instead of fewer jobs, you got a commitment to thousands of new jobs.”

Union officials often say Mr. Biden has been more vocal than any president in decades in supporting organized labor. He appeared in the video as Amazon workers in Alabama sought to unionize, warning that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” and called out Kellogg for his plans to permanently replace the striking workers. (The strike was settled before the company took that step.)

The UAW was an early supporter of Mr. Biden’s green energy policies, but grew frustrated with the lack of support for union jobs in the auto industry in the Inflation Reduction Act, a major climate bill the president signed in 2022.

It takes fewer workers to assemble an electric vehicle than to build one with an internal combustion engine. To make up for the lost assembly jobs, the UAW wants to organize battery and other electric vehicle parts factories that are being built at a rapid pace to take advantage of the generous tax breaks included in Mr. Biden’s climate legislation. They are also pushing to extend unionization to electric vehicle manufacturers, who have long resisted it.

“The electric vehicle transition is at serious risk of becoming a race to the bottom,” Mr. Fain wrote in an internal memo last May announcing that the union planned to withhold Mr. Biden’s endorsement, at least temporarily. “We want to see the national leadership get behind this before we make any commitments.”

Next month, Mr. Fine expressed frustration that the Biden administration gave Ford a $9 billion government loan to build three electric vehicle battery plants in Tennessee and Kentucky without any commitment from the company to create high-paying union jobs there.

Biden’s team redoubled its efforts to engage the union. He tapped Gene Sperling, a longtime Democrat from Michigan, to serve as his union and auto industry liaison. In August, the president’s administration unveiled $12 billion in grants and loans for electric vehicle manufacturing, which would prioritize companies that support good-paying jobs in unionized areas. Mr. Sperling was also in regular contact with senior union officials prior to and during the strike.

Mr. Biden has also used the National Labor Relations Board, the Transportation Department, the Labor Department, even the Environmental Protection Agency, to facilitate union organizing through rules related to government grants and incentives. Even after the UAW’s 46-day strike successfully ended with a major wage increase, Mr. Biden accepted the union’s pledge to turn his attention to organizing nonunion automakers such as Tesla, Volkswagen and Hyundai.

Mr. Biden’s decision to appear on the picket line in Michigan drew the ire of auto industry executives, according to administration officials, who said the president was still determined to make clear where he stood on the labor dispute.

Seeing a start with the UAW’s rank and file, if not its leadership, Mr. Trump then made a play for support, campaigning against Biden’s “ridiculous Green New Deal crusade.” The day after Mr. Biden joined the UAW, Mr Trump rallied at a non-union auto parts factory in Michigan, fighting for the support of embattled blue-collar workers.

Mr. Fain has long made it clear that his leadership will never support the former president.

“I don’t think the man cares one bit about what our workers stand for, what the working class stands for,” Mr. Fain said in September. “He serves the billionaire class, and that’s what’s wrong with this country.”

Still, approval is politically complicated for Mr. Fain. In addition to a significant portion of its membership likely to favor Mr. Trump, the UAW also includes a vocal liberal bloc skeptical of Mr. Biden. Many of the liberal members are graduate students and university researchers who have been critical of the president for his support of Israel during its war in Gaza. The union itself has called for a ceasefire.

At the conference, several UAW members said they had seen the war in Gaza divide their ranks.

“There are people in these ranks who are hurting,” said Daniel Dunbar, 67, a retired auto worker from Flint, Mich. “They have family there and they are afraid for them.”

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