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Biden’s Picket Line Visit Doesn’t Mean He Is On Our Side

President Biden’s visit to the UAW picket line shows the strength of the strike — and why it should remain independent from him and the Democrats.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

September 27, 2023
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President Biden visits striking UAW workers in Michigan.

Yesterday, Joe Biden became the first sitting president to visit a picket line of striking workers. It is historic.

A few hours later, Jacobin published an article entitled “The Militancy of the UAW Strike Forced Joe Biden to Take a Side and Walk the Picket Line,” by Nick French. Jacobin is right that Biden’s visit to the picket line results from the UAW strike’s strength. But Jacobin is dead wrong in its assessment that Biden is “on the side of the working class.”

Instead, Biden’s visit is a product of the capitalist crisis in which both Trump and Biden are vying for influence over the working class in a tight presidential race. In doing so, they are representing the interests of the ruling class. In fact, Biden broke the railway strike and has provided massive handouts to the auto industry to build nonunion, low-wage electric-vehicle (EV) plants. Now, that isn’t a guy who is on the side of workers.

We have to understand that both parties are making overtures to workers because the establishment is in crisis and because workers are showing their strength. This just highlights how important it is that class struggle remain politically independent of both parties. We have to build an independent working-class organization that charts a different path from that of Trump, Biden, and the entire ruling class.

Why Did Biden Come to the Picket Line?

Biden’s visit to the picket line is a result of the strength of the UAW strike, which for the first time ever is bringing out workers from the Big Three auto manufacturers out on strike. The strike is threatening a central pillar of the U.S. economy — the auto industry. And it is putting forward some of the most pro-worker demands we have seen in nearly a century, including cost-of-living increases, the elimination of tiers, the right to strike against plant closures, and the 32-hour workweek for 40 hours’ pay.

Further, it is a product of the strength of the new labor movement in a “hot labor summer.” There is a massive actors’ strike, as well as a writers’ strike that is ratifying a tentative agreement. UPS workers came very close to striking for their contract, and there were also strikes by hotel workers in California. There is massive support for strikes — in a Gallup poll, 75 percent of respondents supported the UAW strike and two-thirds supported labor unions overall.

The shifts in the labor movement run deeper, expressing the changes in workers’ consciousness from the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, the Sanders campaign, and even Occupy Wall Street. This, alongside a tight labor market, creates the conditions for a strong labor movement.

What Else Is Going on Here?

Jacobin argues that in the question “Which side are you on” posed by a strong strike, Biden chose the side of the workers. French explains, “As part of this general polarization, politicians across the political spectrum are being forced to pick a side.” He goes on to say,

We don’t often see politicians and commentators forced to choose a side in the class struggle — especially not when what’s at stake is a popular, massively visible strike by workers in a core industry, led by a union president who declares that his members are “fight[ing] for the entire working class.” Moments like this can also be enormously clarifying for millions of ordinary people who don’t normally pay attention to politics or who have become disaffected. They get to see an open fight between workers demanding basic dignity and CEOs who make tens of millions of dollars a year. And they get to see who actually stands with workers when it counts.

Of course, it is historic for a sitting president to stand with striking workers. That is undeniable. But the lesson that Jacobin wants you and millions of ordinary people to take from this is the wrong one. Biden is not “on the side” of the workers any more than the kente cloth–wearing Democrats were on the side of Black Lives Matter.

Instead, Biden’s visit to the picket line is part of a project of aligning the working class with the Democratic Party in order to win the 2024 election, especially in the face of an erratic Donald Trump, who won a big-enough sector of the industrial working class to help carry him to victory in 2016. And it’s part of a project of projecting support for the working class in order to quell struggles and create national stability under the hegemony of the Democratic Party in order to continue its strategic competition with China. Biden and the establishment are terrified that this strike could unify the ranks of the working class — as there is bipartisan support for the strike — and reinvigorate a labor movement that has been growing stronger since the Red State revolt of 2018.

This is not “on the side of the working class.”

Dealignment Politics

Trump won in 2016 because he peeled a sector of the white working class to his side. Some sectors of working-class people of color have also shifted to the Republicans in small but noticeable numbers. (All too many publications define “working class people” as all those lacking a college degree. For Marxists, the working class is the majority of the global population, made up of people who do not own the means of production and who are forced to sell their labor for the profit of the bosses.) This shift to the Republicans is known as “dealignment” — in other words, sectors of the working class no longer align themselves with the Democratic Party.

Dealignment is a product of the crisis of neoliberalism — a system that has eroded the living standards for the working class and has produced not one but two once-in-a-lifetime recessions. It is these eroded living standards that the UAW strike is fighting; the low wages, the long hours, the lack of pensions, the lack of cost-of-living increases, the stratified tiers, etc. Under neoliberalism, workers have repeatedly seen how the bosses get bailed out while workers bear the brunt of the crisis. Nowhere is this clearer than among the Big Three, which were bailed out by the Obama administration’s funneling of public dollars to private coffers. And the rich just keep getting richer, while the working class just gets poorer and more exploited.

The 2008 economic crisis opened a crisis of neoliberalism. It created polarization to the left and to the right; it has created aberrant political phenomena, including right-wing populists like Trump and progressive populists like Bernie Sanders. It is responsible for the growth of the DSA, but also for the right-wing raid on the Capitol on January 6, as well as the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus. And it is responsible for whole sectors of the working class rejecting the political establishment.

In this new scenario, both the Republicans and Democrats are vying to build a new relationship with the working class in order to garner votes in the 2024 elections. That is why both Trump and Biden are going to a swing state, Michigan, to talk to striking workers.

Biden in particular wants to rebuild the Democratic Party’s relationship with the working class in order to fend off the political instability that a Trump presidency could bring with it, along with the right-wing radicalization that could destabilize the whole country — as we can see right now as the Freedom Caucus refuses to pass a budget.

EVs and the Imperialist Competition with China

One of the Republicans’ main talking points is that green energy is to blame for the terrible conditions that workers face. They emphasize that Biden has been providing mass handouts to auto-industry bosses in order to expand EV production.

And this isn’t entirely wrong.

The White House will require at least 54 percent of all new vehicles to be electric by 2030. Right now, electric vehicles make up only 7.2 percent of U.S. vehicle sales. Thus, a massive shift in car manufacturing is set to take place in the next 10 years. The impetus behind this is the competition with China, which has a massive lead in green energy and the EV manufacturing market. Biden’s auto policies are part of imperialist competition.

Biden is giving handouts to companies in order to make this EV transition — $2 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act to be exact. And most new EV plants are in the right-to-work South, notoriously anti-union states. Further, Elon Musk’s Tesla, is strongly anti-union and is already dominant in EV production. In other words, the Biden agenda can hardly be described as “on the workers’ side.” Instead, it is anti-worker and pro-imperialist — giving lip service, making promises, and offering the workers only most thinnest reforms.

If workers are to ensure that new EV plants are unionized and provide high wages and good working conditions, they will have to fight for it. EV plants require less labor than those that produce gas-fueled trucks, so the demand for 32 hours’ work for 40 hours’ pay will become increasingly essential to keep all workers hired and working as increasing numbers of plants are turned into EV facilities.

And in that struggle, neither Biden nor the hatefully xenophobic Republicans can be counted on as allies. Of course, we cannot discard pro-worker rhetoric or even minor reforms in the context of seeking to pacify the working class — but this will be the product of struggle.

We Need Independent Working-Class Politics

Jacobin laments the “dealignment” of the working class with the Democratic Party. As Matt Karp says directly in the title of his Jacobin article, “Dealignment Is Real. We Can Help Reverse It.” This is the wrong approach for socialists. We should not work to reverse the dealignment. Instead, we must strike while the iron is hot.

We must understand that the bipartisan regime is in crisis, that the working class is putting forward an absolutely historic struggle, and that instead of attempting to lead the working class back to the graveyard of the Democratic Party, we must encourage independent working-class organization and independent working-class politics.

This strike must therefore be organized at the rank-and-file level, so that on a very small scale, “every cook can govern” — every worker can play a role in the decision-making about the strike. That means workers decide how and when to expand the strike, organizing to fight layoffs and organizing picket lines to stop scabs and maintain picketers’ safety. This kind of rank-and-file organization will allow the strike to expand, radicalize, and build the class consciousness needed to win the demands of the UAW strike and to fight for unionized EV plants.

While the two capitalist parties seek to align the working class behind them, the working class should build its own, independent power, its own independent party. UAW president Shawn Fain is right in his statement against Trump: “We can’t keep electing billionaires and millionaires that don’t have any understanding what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to get by, expecting them to solve the problems of the working class.” This is as true for Biden as it is for Trump. It’s true for who the Democrats and Republicans represent — the capitalist class.

In the context of increasing class struggle, of the crisis of neoliberalism and discontent with the political establishment, the socialist Left has the opportunity to put forward politics to break the working class from the stranglehold of the Democratic Party over the working class and reject the hateful populism of the Republicans in order to build their own political force. This means putting forward the necessity of building our own independent, working-class, and socialist party.

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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