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UAW withholds endorsement of Biden as he stays mostly quiet about contract talks

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Nearly 150,000 autoworkers could go on strike later this week if their negotiations with the big three automakers don't reach a breakthrough. For President Biden, this is a moment of potential political peril. NPR's senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: President Biden is a union guy and a car guy through and through.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Auto manufacturing's large - been a middle - largely been a middle-class career with good pay that you could raise a family on. Well, that's not going to change on my watch.

KEITH: But he hasn't had a lot to say about contract talks between the United Auto Workers and Detroit carmakers, and what he did say - on Labor Day, no less - kicked up dust. He told reporters he didn't think a strike would happen. The union was quick with a rebuke. The option of striking is their leverage in these talks. Here's UAW president Shawn Fain on CNBC.

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SHAWN FAIN: I think our strike can reaffirm to him of where the working-class people in this country stand. And, you know, it's time for politicians in this country to pick a side. Either you stand for a billionaire class where everybody else gets left behind, or you stand for the working class.

KEITH: President Biden's political brand has been built on siding with the working class. Gene Sperling, a top economic adviser to Biden, is his point person on these talks. Sperling says the president wasn't making a prediction and certainly wasn't trying to undermine the union.

GENE SPERLING: He stands with UAW workers. But you present a situation like this to him - yeah, he's going to look at it optimistically because he wants the parties to believe that they can find that win-win opportunity.

KEITH: These talks come as the Biden administration pushes the industry hard to make and sell more electric vehicles. There are huge financial incentives in his landmark climate legislation known as the Inflation Reduction Act. But electric vehicles require fewer workers to build, and the batteries themselves could end up being made in nonunion factories or at much lower wages.

DEBBIE DINGELL: These negotiations are where the rubber hits the road.

KEITH: Congresswoman Debbie Dingell is a Democrat from Michigan. Although the battery issue isn't technically part of the negotiations, it threatens a rift between autoworkers and their longtime allies in the Democratic Party. Dingell says it's not unlike 2016. That's when former President Donald Trump won Michigan, in part because she says workers didn't feel like Democrats cared about them.

DINGELL: Donald Trump didn't deliver on trade, but he talked about trade. He showed an empathy for it. So it's going to be very important that President Biden show them that he is paying attention, that he does care, that he wants to protect their jobs.

KEITH: Most of the country's biggest labor unions have already endorsed Biden's reelection bid, but not the United Auto Workers. And that lack of an endorsement is hanging over the contract talks. Here's the UAW's Fain on MSNBC.

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FAIN: You know, the one thing we've made clear is that we - our endorsements are going to be earned, not freely given. That's one thing we're doing differently. And there's a lot of work left to be done here.

KEITH: Fain went on to say he's no fan of Trump as he runs for president once again. But Trump is actively courting autoworkers and criticizing the move to electric vehicles. In 2016, he was able to peel away a significant share of votes from rank-and-file union members. Cedric de Leon, who specializes in labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says Biden needs to side with the workers in these talks and be vocal about it.

CEDRIC DE LEON: Because I know who will take advantage of that if he isn't, you know, full-throated on behalf of workers. Trump will.

KEITH: He points out this is far bigger than Biden earning the endorsement of the UAW. There are millions of union workers in America watching to see how this goes, and they're reliable voters, many of whom live in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.