WASHINGTON—There’s a classic union song titled “Which Side Are You On?” asking if you are for the bosses or the workers.
President Joe Biden unabashedly answers the “Which side are you on” refrain in the famous labor anthem. Unlike any other president, he’s on the union side.
Biden will take some deserved credit Thursday when he is in Belvidere for playing a role in reopening the Stellantis auto assembly plant. It closed in February, with its fate uncertain even before the United Auto Workers strike. Some 1,350 workers had been making Jeep Cherokees.
When the plant reopens — with the help of federal and state incentive packages — those workers will be back, plus about 1,000 more at an adjacent battery manufacturing facility.
The visit is designed to highlight Biden’s pro-union and job creation policies, among his biggest strengths.
The Belvidere stop comes as Biden, seeking a second term, is getting battered in polls while the revenge-motivated former President Donald Trump, even with all his criminal indictments, seems on the way to claiming the GOP nomination and getting a chance to return to the White House.
Parts of the Democratic base — youths and Black and Hispanic voters — so far are not polling at the crucially needed 2020 levels. Unions are a major part of the Democratic constituency, and it is to these voters that a success story like the revival of the Belvidere plant — made possible in part by Democrats like Biden, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Rep. Bill Foster — can speak volumes and potentially spur turnout among blue-collar voters.
Belvidere is in Boone County, about 75 miles northwest of Chicago and just east of Rockford, is where Biden’s Air Force One will touch down Thursday. It’s instructive to know that Biden is throwing a spotlight on his policies, and his pro-unionism, in a county Trump won in 2020 and Pritzker and Foster lost in 2022.
Biden is the first sitting president to walk a picket line. The president jumped in to help UAW win a very favorable tentative contract — it still has to be ratified — from GM, Ford and Stellantis after a strike of about 45 days.
UAW President Shawn Fain is among those who will be at the Belvidere event. It’s not clear yet if the union will endorse Biden.
I was curious about Biden’s role in the Stellantis restart. One part of the backstory starts with Foster.
Under the new Illinois congressional map based on the 2020 Census and in effect with the 2022 vote, Foster’s district was redrawn to include Belvidere and surrounding Republican turf. Belvidere, under the old map was in the district of now former Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill.
Foster started representing Belvidere in January, a few weeks before the plant was indefinitely idled. He commiserated with Rep. Eric Sorensen, D-Ill., from an adjacent district.
Foster started talking to Pritzker’s team and Biden administration officials wherever he would come upon them. Then in June, when Biden was in Chicago to unveil his “Bidenomics” agenda at the Old Post Office, Foster got a few minutes with Biden and brought up Belvidere. According to Foster, the president said, “We are going to have to do something. … I will make some phone calls on this for you.”
Biden that day got a similar message in Chicago from UAW Local 1268 President Matt Frantzen.
Soon after, Foster and Sorensen had a meeting with top Biden adviser John Podesta and were in contact with Gene Sperling, tapped by Biden to be the UAW strike point person.
In September Biden called Mark Stewart, the Stellantis chief operating officer for North America. White House Communications Director Ben LaBolt told me Wednesday that in that call, Biden “personally advocated for this plant to be reopened.”
And that’s the side Biden is on. Whether there is a political payoff remains to be seen.