People walk a United Auto Workers picket line at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant on Friday in Wayne, Mich. The union is striking against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis.

People walk a United Auto Workers picket line at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant on Friday in Wayne, Mich. The union is striking against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. (Valaurian Waller for The Washington Post)

Senior White House aides have been trying to quell tensions with the United Auto Workers since remarks by President Biden last week inadvertently upset union leadership, according to three people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks.

Speaking from the Roosevelt Room on Friday, the first day of the UAW’s strike against the nation’s three largest auto manufacturers, Biden said that he was dispatching acting labor secretary Julie Su and senior White House adviser Gene Sperling to Detroit “to offer their full support for the parties in reaching a contract.” Internally, Biden aides regarded the brief announcement as an inoffensive gesture aimed at providing support in the talks, particularly because the president coupled it with a strong endorsement of the union’s demand for a better wage proposal from the Big Three automakers.

But Biden’s comments instead antagonized UAW officials, who feared the presence of Su and Sperling would be interpreted by some workers as a sign that the administration was swooping in to control the negotiations. White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre tried clarifying in her news conference later Friday that “negotiations are up to the parties to work out” and that Su and Sperling are “not going to intervene or mediate.” UAW officials still vented their frustration with the president’s remarks to White House aides, before communicating over the weekend that the administration should either send someone to join striking workers on the picket line or not send anyone at all, the people said.

By Tuesday, the White House pulled the plug on Sperling and Su’s trip, although the tensions had subsided enough by then for the parties to agree to try to have the Biden aides go to Detroit after this week, even without walking the picket line. Several Democratic members of Congress have gone to join pickets, and some Biden allies are anxious for him to make an appearance, too.

The private back-and-forth over Biden’s remarks, which have not previously been reported, reflects the challenge the administration faces in trying to figure out how to handle a historic labor strike now in its sixth day. Intensifying the high political stakes is that former president Donald Trump, the likely 2024 Republican nominee rival, will go to Detroit next week, skipping a GOP primary debate to hold a rally with workers in a bid to fracture the union vote, long a key Democratic bloc.

Biden now faces the crucial decision of whether he, or someone else in his administration, should take the dramatic step of joining the UAW on the picket line — something no president appears to have ever done.

White House officials are currently weighing options, including a presidential picket line visit or that of a top aide, although planning is in flux and no decision has been made, two people familiar with the matter said. White House spokeswoman Robyn Patterson said in a statement that the administration is not considering holding a town hall event or a rally. Patterson declined to comment on whether Biden or a White House official could go to the picket line. Politico first reported the White House is weighing whether to dispatch a top aide to the picket line.

While they share the goals of a strong UAW contract and defeating Trump in 2024, Biden and UAW President Shawn Fain do not always have perfectly overlapping objectives. Biden is balancing his support for the union against the White House’s traditional role as neutral mediator in labor disputes, as well as his desire to protect the broader economy from a protracted strike. And Fain’s criticism of Trump — who he has savaged as part of the “billionaire class” — does not mean he will act like a Democratic politician who marches in lockstep behind the president. Labor leaders say Fain is squarely focused on maintaining the unity of his members in the strike, and that he cannot let divisions in his ranks over Trump and Biden distract from that all-important fight.

On Friday, after Biden announced Sperling and Su’s trip, Fain released a statement saying, “Working people are not afraid. You know who’s afraid? The corporate media is afraid. The White House is afraid.” Fain later denied the quote in an interview with reporters that night.

But as Trump tries to return to the White House, both Biden and Fain also have strong incentives to work together. Union leaders sympathetic to both leaders fear the disconnect risks snowballing into a larger symbol of Democrats’ challenges with working-class voters, who they cannot afford to lose in 2024 battleground states such as Michigan. Biden won the state’s 16 electoral votes by about 154,000 votes in 2020, after Trump won the state by fewer than 11,000 votes in 2016. Trump is regarded by most union leaders as a disaster for workers’ rights, and they are urging the UAW and White House to close ranks as soon as possible to prevent him from exploiting their divisions.

“Biden improved Democrats’ showing with union voters in 2020, but the election was still razor-close and everyone has a pit in their stomach this is going to turn into a much bigger thing,” said one union official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to give his frank assessment of the matter.

A White House spokeswoman disputed the notion that the administration was considering any moves in response to Trump’s Detroit-area rally and pointed to Biden’s long record of fighting for union priorities. Trump has feuded with Fain, urging UAW members to withhold their dues and accusing him of leading the union badly, and union leaders revile the billionaire for rejecting their priorities as a candidate and as president.

“Thanks to the President’s policies — the future of the auto industry will be built in America by American workers. If the prior administration and Congressional Republicans got their way, these auto jobs would be headed to China,” Patterson, the White House spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The President believes the UAW-Big Three contract must lead to a vibrant auto future made in America, that promotes good, strong middle-class jobs that a worker can raise a family on, and where the UAW remains at the heart of our auto economy.”

The White House’s defenders expressed frustration with the second-guessing of administration strategy despite Biden’s strong support for union policies generally and the UAW strike specifically. Numerous Democrats said the president has already gone beyond reasonable expectations for demonstrating support through endorsing the UAW’s call for a better wage proposal, and that Biden needs to remain a neutral party to help close negotiations. For that reason, they say, it’s unfair to expect Biden to walk the picket line himself.

“It’s not like it’s done great damage to the economy, but if it goes on for weeks and expands, it really could,” said Dean Baker, an administration ally at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank. “As much as he’s made clear he sympathizes with the strikers, he does not want to be seen as partisan. He wants to be able to talk to the industry and ask for an extra mile, or another big concession, so I don’t think it actually helps him to actually be seen on the picket line.”

Signs are mounting that the strike will not be resolved imminently. In a video posted late Monday, Fain threatened to expand the UAW strike this week unless “serious progress” is made toward an agreement by Friday. The union has been at odds with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis over wages, benefits, job protections and other matters in the contract dispute. Biden is also contending with the prospect of a government shutdown as soon as midnight on Oct. 1, which could compound the challenges facing the administration.

But as much as Biden may be constrained in how much he can back the UAW, Fain faces similar limits on how much he can back the White House, according to labor experts. The UAW’s account on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, for instance, has retweeted scores of Democratic lawmakers who have backed the union’s demands. Those posts, however, don’t risk any confusion over whether the lawmakers are trying to take sides.

“The White House has been a terrific friend to labor, more than any president we know of. But bargaining wins come from bargaining power, which comes from the members of the union. The most critical element of winning is the power of the workers in the strike,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, who stressed she had no inside knowledge of the talks. “Interference from the White House, while well-intentioned, can be seen by some workers as a sign of weakness from their campaign or a sign that concessions are going to happen.”

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