Why Was the President on the UAW Picket Line?
Amid the flurry of other political news, you might have missed President Joe Biden’s visit to a picket line at a General Motors warehouse in Detroit last Tuesday, where striking United Auto Workers (UAW) members demanded higher pay. There, the president “grabbed a bullhorn” and inspired the union members to “stick with it,” agreeing they “should be able to bargain” for a 40% raise.
Biden was the first president ever — or at least in modern history — to visit a picket line with striking workers. Not even Teddy Roosevelt, F.D. Roosevelt, or Harry Truman walked a picket line.
The reason why Biden decided to join the picket line is obvious — he wanted to polish his pro-union credentials. “We know the President will do right by the working class,” UAW president Shawn Fain responded. “That is exactly the political message that the White House was trying to communicate by organizing the trip,” wrote The New Yorker.
At the same time, Biden overlooked an even better reason not to walk the picket line. “Presidents have basically positioned themselves as mediators between both labor and management,” noted Timothy Naftali, former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. In other words, presidents occupy a position of vast power and influence.
The whole point of strikes is they allow powerless laborers to increase their negotiating leverage toward their bosses through common action (and they made a lot more sense 120 years ago when laborers worked 12-hour days in coal mines for peanuts).
While some presidents have historically acted to improve working conditions for laborers, the presidency is fundamentally more like an industry baron than a shift worker (except as respects Congress). The president is the chief executive officer of the government. He has no peers or substitutes. He can make decisions that nobody else can. He accomplishes his objectives by writing orders that other people carry out, not by indirectly forcing someone to the negotiating table by refusing to work.
So, it’s worth asking, why was the president on the picket line?
It wasn’t necessary to fulfill his official duties. That’s not his job, nor how he does his job.
Visiting a picket line is not even politically important for a president. Previous presidents who wanted to show support for labor unions invited their leaders to the White House.
Instead, I submit that Biden’s visit to the picket line can be explained by a worldview or ideology. Marxist thought — also known as critical theory, or more loosely as “wokeness” — categorizes all people into classes, which define a person as “oppressor” or “oppressed,” as “victim” or “victimizer.” These categories can be divided upon economic lines, or, increasingly, by sex, race, color, or LGBT status.
Classic Marxism attempted to exploit poor working conditions experienced by factory workers during the industrial revolution and generate a communist revolution. (In countries where capitalism flourished, societies avoided that devastation simply by creating improved working conditions, which is why communism only succeeded in seizing power in nations with largely pre-industrial economies.) Some labor unions are tied to this early communist agitation, such as Industrial Workers of the World.
Newer versions of Marxism have abandoned the economic pitch in favor identity-based divisions. They classify society into groups of “oppressors” — whites, males, Christians, people married to someone of the opposite sex — and “oppressed” — blacks, women, religious minorities, people who identify as LGBT. They further argue that someone’s status as a victim or victimizer is enhanced by how many corresponding identity groups they belong to — this is called “intersectionality.” The obvious benefit (from their division-seeking perspective) is that, while economic distinctions were blurred and dwindling, these identity-based divisions are obvious and perpetual.
They fortify their position either through fuzzy historical references, such as the “1619 Project,” or through the logical fallacy of whole-to-part, applying a group’s statistical characteristics to every individual. Thus, it doesn’t matter if a black female has actually experienced oppression; she is oppressed. It doesn’t matter if a white male has never oppressed anyone; he is an oppressor simply for enjoying the inherent benefits of whiteness. How these conclusions hold when applied to a black, female CEO who graduated from Harvard, or an unemployed, white drug addict from Appalachia, is not seriously considered.
Nevertheless, the Left cares about a person’s relative victimhood status, even among the cream of the crop. On Sunday, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) appointed EMILY’s List president Laphonza Butler, a Maryland resident, to replace the late Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate. Newsom promised to appoint a black woman to the Senate seat way back in 2021, and Butler is black, a woman, and identifies as a lesbian to boot. The move echoed President Biden’s own campaign pledge to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court, which he fulfilled by nominating Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Sadly, the Left’s overt obsession with identity-based classifications actually diminishes the individual merit of minorities who benefit by it. Biden and Newsom could have emphasized the career accomplishments of their respective nominees, conveying the message, “after considering all possible Americans, this was the best person for the job.” Instead, they communicated, “after artificially limiting myself to 7% of all Americans, this was the best person for the job.”
But the Left doesn’t recognize this. Despite their attempts to shoulder the civil rights mantle, the Left believes that people should be judged by the color of their skin, not the content of their character. They believe, not that all men are created equal, but that all people are inherently oppressors or oppressed. And, because of this, they believe that government should focus not on providing liberty and justice for all, but on reversing past wrongs and interfering to ensure equality of outcomes. Most of all, they believe the only way to achieve their utopian vision of a just society is for government to become all powerful and to be run by them.
Yet, at the same time that they seek a more powerful government, neo-Marxists also revere victimhood. Powerlessness is the whole justification for their worldview and their power grab. They elevate the forms of victimhood — including all forms of mass protest — even if those protesting are no longer victims. They need to be victims, or at least to be seen as standing in solidarity with victims, to justify their totalitarianism even to themselves.
And that’s how the president — the most powerful person in America — ended up walking a picket line.
Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.