On Tuesday, Joe Biden became the first sitting American president to walk a picket line. Specifically, he joined strikers and spoke briefly outside a General Motors facility in Van Buren Township, Mich., where hundreds of striking autoworkers were demanding their fair share of the profits they produced.
“You deserve what you earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now,” Biden said, speaking through a bullhorn. Biden was standing alongside Shawn Fain, the president of the U.A.W., who noted they were standing with Local 174, which had been built nearly 90 years earlier by Walter Reuther in the months before the sit-down strikes at General Motors in 1936, a struggle that concluded with a historic victory for the union.
“The victory over General Motors gave the U.A.W. great organizational momentum in the automobile industry,” the historian Irving Bernstein observed in “The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941.” By August 1937, just months after the union reached an agreement with General Motors, “it had 256 locals and had entered into 400 collective bargaining agreements. The latter were made with every important automobile and parts manufacturer except Ford, and the union was beginning to make inroads into the farm equipment and aircraft industries.” The U.A.W., in other words, had cleared the way for both the unionization of the domestic automobile industry and the growth of industrial unionism in general.
This is all to say that, however modest it was and however much it was driven by electoral calculations, Biden’s appearance was, in words he once used for a different occasion, a big deal. The president — once known, as a senator representing Delaware, for his devotion to the interests of banks and credit card companies — announced his allegiance to organized labor in a way that even Franklin Roosevelt declined to do.
And his commitment is not just words and symbolic actions. Biden’s National Labor Relations Board has been as supportive to unions and worker’s rights as any in recent memory. This summer, in fact, the N.L.R.B. issued a ruling that effectively revitalizes union organizing by forcing an employer to recognize a union if a majority of employees file authorization cards and the employer engages in an illegal unfair labor practice, like firing pro-union workers.
You can contrast Biden’s appearance on the picket line with former president Donald Trump’s Wednesday campaign rally at a nonunion auto parts supplier in nearby Macomb County. Whereas Biden spoke directly to the concerns of striking workers, and to their identity as workers fighting for their livelihoods, Trump railed against electric cars and tried, as usual, to stoke cultural divisions. “You can be loyal to American labor or you can be loyal to the environmental lunatics,” Trump said during his speech. “But you can’t really be loyal to both. It’s one or the other.” Speaking to unionized workers who weren’t there, he also told his audience that “Your current negotiations don’t mean as much as you think.” Trump has been a boss his entire life, and here, he was speaking like a boss.
The two events, held so closely together, were a stark illustration of the difference between an actual politics of class — informed, as it always is, by the particular histories, conditions and experiences of a particular group of workers — and a narrow politics of blue-collar cultural identity masquerading as a politics of class.
Make no mistake: Donald Trump might speak, at length, about his affection for workers in the abstract. But when it’s time to make policy, he is a clear and present enemy of the interests of labor.
What I Wrote
My Tuesday column was about the corrupt behavior of Justice Clarence Thomas and why Democrats should call for his impeachment even if there’s no chance to make it a reality.
My Friday column, somewhat related to the previous one, was a look at the supermajority rules of the American political system.
Pablo Manríquez on what the United States still owes to the people of Chile for The New Republic.
Patrick Iber on liberalism past, present and future for Dissent.
Rebecca Wanzo on “Star Trek: Picard” for Public Books.
E. Tammy Kim on the Hollywood strikes for The New York Review of Books.
Mie Inouye on solidarity for Boston Review.
Photo of the Week
As I have mentioned before, I was in Montreal this summer and spent most of my time walking around, seeing sights with my family and taking pictures. I have finally edited and curated my shots and I have to say that this one — of a person waiting for the next train — is one of my favorites.
Now Eating: Spicy Peanut and Pumpkin Soup
I have been on a real soup kick now that the weather has gotten cooler, and this soup — from New York Times Cooking — is simple and easy to make. The honey and yogurt are optional, but I think you should add them. Consider eating this with freshly made roti.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and diced (about 1½ cups)
4 garlic cloves, smashed
1 (1-inch) piece ginger, peeled and chopped
½ habanero or bird’s eye chile
1 (14-ounce) can pumpkin purée
3 cups water (or use chicken or vegetable stock)
1 (13-ounce) can coconut milk
1 tablespoon agave or honey (optional)
¼ cup unsweetened natural peanut butter
2 tablespoons sliced fresh chives (optional)
¼ cup crème fraîche or yogurt (optional)
In a large stockpot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion, garlic and ginger, and cook, stirring frequently until softened and just beginning to brown around the edges, about 4 minutes. Stir in the chile and pumpkin purée, and whisk in the water or stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and allow to simmer on low, giving an occasional stir, for 20 minutes or until slightly reduced and thickened. Remove the chile after the soup simmers if you don’t care for much spice.
Add coconut milk, agave or honey (if using), and peanut butter to the pot. Using an immersion blender or working in batches in a standing blender, purée the soup until smooth. Season with salt and keep warm over low heat. Do not bring soup up to a simmer or boil at this point. (This reduces the risk of the oils in the peanut butter separating and breaking the soup’s smooth texture.)
Divide soup between bowls, sprinkle with the chives and a dollop of crème fraîche or yogurt, or a drizzle of olive oil to make it vegan.