Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su and White House senior adviser Gene Sperling are no longer deploying to Detroit this week, a White House official said, and instead will engage with United Auto Workers leadership and the automakers from Washington, DC.
Sperling and Su had previously planned on traveling to Detroit “early in the week” at President Joe Biden’s direction to “offer their full support for the parties in reaching a contract.” The White House had described their role as supportive, not an intervening one.
“Acting Secretary Su and Gene Sperling have consistently engaged with the parties on the state of negotiations. Given that negotiations are ongoing between the negotiating parties, it is most productive for Sperling and Su to continue their discussions from Washington and allow talks to move forward, and we’ll continue to assess travel timing based on the active state of negotiations,” the official said.
“The president stands with UAW workers, and believes that record corporate profits must mean record contracts for the UAW,” the official said, echoing the president’s statement from Friday.
Asked by CNN’s Abby Phillip about the change in plans, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on “Primetime” that the “mutual decision” was made in order to give the UAW and the so-called Big Three car companies “the space to continue to negotiate.”
“The president certainly believes that collective bargaining is something that the workers should be able to move forward with, and they should be able to do that, but it is up to them to come to a resolution, to have these negotiations,” she said Tuesday.
Biden had said during a Friday speech that he would be sending his advisers to Detroit as the administration’s go-between in the talks. Sperling in particular has been acting as the administration’s representative in the talks, but the administration has made clear that it is only acting in an advisory role and Biden’s power to intervene in the negotiations is limited.
The president lacks the legal authority he would have if a freight railroad or airline was threatening to strike. In those cases, a different labor law gives the president the authority to order both sides to continue on the job. Biden exercised that law last year to prevent a strike of freight rail workers, angering some of his allies in the labor movement.
UAW President Shawn Fain in recent days has said he doesn’t see the president’s team as being key to brokering an agreement between the labor union and automakers.
“Not at all. This is our battle,” Fain said on MSNBC on Monday. “First off our negotiating teams are working hard. Our members are out there manning the picket lines and our allies are out there with us. You know, this battle is not about the president. It’s not about the former president or any other person prior to that. This battle is about the workers standing up for economic and social justice and getting their fair share because they’re fed up with going backwards.”
The president has faced pressure to increase his support for the striking workers, even after giving an explicitly pro-worker speech last week calling on the auto companies to improve their offer to the union.
“I do appreciate that the parties have been working around the clock. When I first called them at the first day of negotiation, I said, ‘Please stay at the table as long as you can to try to work this out,’” Biden said from the Roosevelt Room. “But I believe they should go further to ensure record profits mean record contracts for the UAW.”
He added, “Over the past decade, auto companies have seen record profits, including the last few years because of extraordinary skill and sacrifices the UAW workers. Those record profits have not been shared fairly, in my view, with those workers.”
A Biden administration official told CNN Sunday that the federal government would continue to engage with the parties and planned to continue conversations in person early this week.
Still, there have been calls for him to join union workers on the picket line, as House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat, has done.
“President Biden, I think, will continue to express strong solidarity with the notion as he said just a few days ago that there have been record profits that should result in a record contract – nothing less than that is acceptable,” Jeffries said Monday.
Biden has also drawn ire from union leaders for his comments before the strike, including on Labor Day when he said he was “not worried” about a strike and that he didn’t think it was going to happen. Fain told CNN affiliate WXYZ that he was “shocked” by those comments.
For Biden, who has labeled himself the most “pro-union president in history,” the strike has laid bare a tension between two of his chief objectives: Improving wages and conditions for American manufacturing workers and leading a transition to clean energy.
The president has insisted repeatedly those can be parallel goals, not competing ones. But the launch of the strike makes clear that reconciling those intentions will still be a complex challenge. Negotiations between the autoworkers and the Big Three – General Motors, Ford and Jeep-maker Stellantis – had been complicated by the shift to electric vehicles.
This story has been updated with additional information.