President Biden pulled a red United Automobile Workers T-shirt over his button-down on Thursday and celebrated a landmark labor deal that kept a Stellantis manufacturing plant in business, using an appearance in Illinois to shore up crucial union support.
“I’ve worn this shirt a lot, man,” Mr. Biden told a man in the crowd, one month after he walked a picket line to support autoworkers in their strike for higher wages. “I’ve been involved in the U.A.W. longer than you’ve been alive,” the 80-year-old president said.
The speech before the boisterous crowd was a victory lap for Mr. Biden after the union reached an agreement with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis late last month on a contract that included pay increases and reopened the plant in Belvidere, Ill.
Mr. Biden made the case for clean energy even as many workers fear the president’s climate change agenda could endanger their jobs. He also drew a contrast with his likely Republican opponent in the 2024 presidential race, former President Donald J. Trump.
“When my predecessor was in office, six factories closed across the country. Tens of thousands of auto jobs were lost nationwide, and on top of that he was willing to cede the future of electric vehicles to China,” Mr. Biden said. He added that Mr. Trump has insisted that electric vehicles will lead to the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs.
“Well, like almost everything else he said, he’s wrong,” Mr. Biden added. “And you have proved him wrong. Instead of lower wages, you won record gains. Instead of fewer jobs, you won a commitment for thousands of more jobs.”
During Mr. Trump’s four years in office, the National Labor Relations Board often took pro-corporate stances and was actively hostile to unions. While Mr. Biden in September became the first president to appear on a picket line, Mr. Trump visited a nonunion plant in Michigan and said union members “were being sold down the river by their leadership.”
The Biden administration has proposed the nation’s most ambitious climate regulations yet, which would ensure that two-thirds of new passenger cars are all-electric by 2032 — up from just 5.8 percent today. The rules, if enacted, could sharply lower planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle tailpipes, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse emissions.
But they also come with costs for autoworkers, because it takes fewer than half the laborers to assemble an all-electric vehicle as it does to build a gasoline-powered car. Union leaders also fear that many of the new manufacturing plants for electric vehicle batteries and other parts are being built in states that are hostile to unions.
On Thursday, Mr. Biden showered praise on union leaders, particularly Shawn Fain, the president of the U.A.W., saying the strike that Mr. Fain led saved the automobile industry. “You’ve done a hell of a job, pal,” Mr. Biden told him.
Mr. Fain did not offer Mr. Biden the endorsement of his powerful union with about 400,000 active members, including a major presence in the swing state of Michigan.
In the past, the union boss has been vocally critical of some administration decisions around its push for electric vehicles, writing in a memo to union members in May that “the E.V. transition is at serious risk of becoming a race to the bottom.” He wrote that the union wanted to see “national leadership have our back on this” before making a decision on an endorsement.
“His view was: We’re two guys from working-class backgrounds,” Gene Sperling, Mr. Biden’s liaison to the U.A.W., said of the president’s view shortly before he invited Mr. Fain to the Oval Office in July. The two have spoken on the phone several times since, including once when Mr. Biden called Mr. Fain to wish him a happy birthday.
Administration officials said the tenor of the relationship changed when Mr. Biden joined striking autoworkers in Michigan in September. When word came down that the union had struck a deal with the automakers, Mr. Biden stepped away during a state dinner welcoming the Australian prime minister and called Mr. Fain, a senior administration official said.
David Popp, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University, noted that while new factories will be needed to build electric vehicle batteries, the vehicles will require fewer suppliers producing parts. Many assembly workers will also need to be retrained.
“We may also need fewer workers,” Mr. Popp said in an email. But, he said, “there doesn’t seem to be a consensus yet on whether that is the case.”
Kristine Lynn, who spent 17 years on the assembly line at the Belvidere manufacturing plant before it shuttered eight months ago, said she had “mixed emotions” about the transition to clean energy and electric vehicles.
Ms. Lynn, 49, said she was unsure what job she was returning to, but knew she would face changes in the long run. Her last position involved putting gas tanks into automobiles.
“That job isn’t going to exist anymore,” she said.