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Wearing a United Auto Workers baseball cap, President Joe Biden told striking autoworkers on Tuesday that “unions built the middle class”, as he became the first sitting president to join a picket line.

UAW president Shawn Fain, who had invited Biden to join striking workers, thanked him for coming to the line outside a General Motors parts distribution centre in Belleville, Michigan, “to stand up, with us, in our generation’s defining moment”, before handing over a bullhorn to the US president.

“Wall Street didn’t build the country, the middle class built this country,” Biden told workers wearing red and waving signs. “And unions built the middle class . . . You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now.”

Asked by a reporter if workers deserved a 40 per cent pay rise, Biden replied, “yes”. The union is asking for 36 per cent over four years, while the three Detroit carmakers have countered with 20 per cent. The UAW also wants all workers to be paid on the same wage scale, which the companies oppose.

Biden’s visit to the picket line comes just over a year before the US presidential election, in which Michigan and Ohio will be crucial battleground states. Donald Trump won Ohio in 2016 and 2020, while Michigan voted for the former president in 2016 before choosing Biden four years later.

Trump plans to hold his own rally in Michigan on Wednesday. Lawmakers from both parties have also visited the striking workers in recent days.

The UAW has withheld its endorsement for the 2024 presidential race, an endorsement that comes with money and foot soldiers to help get out the vote, with Fain saying the union’s backing must be “earned”.

Biden told reporters in Michigan that he was “not worried” about whether the UAW will endorse him.

Biden has presented himself as the most pro-union president in recent memory, and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Tuesday called the visit “historic”.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in the 1930s that he would join a union if he worked in a factory, and Barack Obama offered words of support to 200 workers occupying a building in Chicago in 2008 when he was president-elect.

“It is one thing for a politician to speak to a group of strikers, but it is quite a different thing to walk a picket line,” said Ileen DeVault, a labour historian at Cornell University.

UAW member Mark Brewer, who works in a Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan, approved of Biden’s visit and said it may have bolstered the union’s bargaining position.

“Anybody should support the union, even if you’re not in a union yourself,” he said. “The union comes from people being mistreated, and even if you’re not a part of that, you shouldn’t want people to be mistreated.”

Trump is scheduled to speak on Wednesday at Drake Enterprises, a non-union automotive supplier in Clinton Township, about 25 miles north of Detroit.

The former president has attacked Biden over the strikes and tried to position himself as on the side of auto workers. On Tuesday he slammed the White House’s electric vehicle push, saying the “only thing Biden could say today that would help the striking autoworkers is to announce the immediate termination of his ridiculous mandate”.

“Anything else is just a feeble and insulting attempt to distract American labour from this vicious Biden betrayal,” Trump added.

Additional reporting by Peter Campbell in London

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