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President Biden and UAW head assemble in Illinois to tout re-opening of idled auto plant

President Biden's speech in Belvidere

President Joe Biden made a stop in northern Illinois on Thursday to meet with workers who are celebrating the re-opening of an idled assembly plant.

The President's visit comes as his approval ratings hit their lowest level since April. That's according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll.

As Biden builds his re-election campaign, the President has also been courting an endorsement from the UAW.

Air Force One touched down in Rockford around noon on Thursday.

The President's motorcade then made its way to the Community Building Complex of Boone County.

Shuttering of the Plant

Belvidere, Ill. is home to a Stellantis auto plant that produced Jeep Cherokee vehicles.

The Chrysler parent company paused production at the plant back in February, laying off over 1,000 workers. That came after several years of cutbacks. At its peak the plant employed more than 5,000 people.

Office of State Senator Dave Syverson

Last week, UAW and Stellantis reached a tentative deal reopening the Belvidere plant -- bringing back the workers, giving them a 25% pay increase, and adding over 1,000 jobs at a new, multi-billion dollar battery plant.

Stellantis is expected to invest nearly $5 billion in the Belvidere plant.

Presidential Visit to Belvidere

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker spoke to workers ahead of the President's remarks. Pritzker thanked the President for lifting up the workers in Belvidere, calling them the "bedrock foundation of this state."

“You fought for an agreement that brought it all together for working families," Pritzker said. "Higher wages, expanded benefits and more new jobs for your children and grandchildren in a growing industry.”

UAW President Shawn Fain entered the room to Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" playing in the backdrop.

"Nobody thought we could accomplish what we accomplished," Fain told the crowd. "This one was personal."

He called the deal a team effort. Fain said what saved Belvidere was the recent strike.

"Workers willing to stand up and take back their lives," Fain said. "We will win when ordinary people do extraordinary things."

Fain says the next step is for workers to organize nationally.

Then a recording of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's "Born in the U.S.A" got plenty of play before "Hail to the Chief" took over.

Emily Bollinger/WGLT

President Biden was interrupted soon after starting his remarks by someone shouting for a ceasefire in Gaza.

President Biden interaction with protester during Belvidere visit on Nov. 9, 2023

Biden did not directly address the crisis in the Middle East during his visit. It's unclear if the protestor was affiliated with the plant. Biden paused during the interaction and then continued talking about the auto contract negotiations.

"You'll be treated fairly," Biden told the workers about their new deal. "You'll get the dignity and respect that you deserve right here at home."

Biden also took an impromptu shot at press reports of physical stumbles the President has had during his presidency. During his remarks, someone in the room tripped and Biden paused to ask if they were okay before joking with the press that it wasn't him this time.

Resident and Worker Reaction

It’s the historic moment that brought Jennifer Hunter and her 14-year-old daughter, Kallan to Belvidere.

“My mom thought it'd be a really good learning experience, because it's once in a lifetime that the President would come to our town.”

The President’s visit also drew Leslie Dimas and her cousin Jesus Rivera.

They showed up to give homage to her father who was a proud member of the union.

“I used to go to his UAW meetings with him,” Dimas said. “Honestly, I received open heart surgery when I was seven years old. And my surgery was covered because of the insurance that UAW got for my dad. And so I'm alive today because of that UAW insurance.”

Wearing red T-shirts, UAW workers filled the room.

Terry Thompson has worked at the plant for 29 years. When he received the news that the plant was re-opening, he was thrilled.

“I was happy. That means we don’t have to go anywhere,” Thompson said.

His wife Anita Thompson says she’s relieved. Nevertheless, they were prepared to relocate to another plant to keep their pension and health insurance.

“I mean, everybody needs health care, Thompson said. “And we're up in age. And we put all these years in. That's a benefit for us.”

Former Illinois lawmaker Diane Pappas, stood in the back of the auditorium during the remarks. She’s pleased that small towns like Belvidere are getting attention and economic investment.

“A lot of focus is on Chicago in the suburbs,” Pappas said. “But you know, the rest of the state is very important as well. I'm just happy to be here supporting unions and supporting workers and supporting our President.”

Now workers and the community wait as the timeline for when the plant will reopen is still unclear.

Bipartisan reaction

Illinois State Senator Dave Syverson (R-Cherry Valley) issued a statement on Thursday crediting broad-based community support and cooperation by local and state leaders.

“What ultimately got it over the finish line was the agreement worked out by the UAW during recent strike negotiations with Stellantis,” Syverson said. “The Belvidere Assembly Plant opened up nearly 60 years ago and has been an important economic engine for Boone County and the region all these years.”

Democratic Congressman Eric Sorensen (IL-17) also released a statement applauding the deal.

“As I’m working across the aisle to make sure good-paying, union jobs come to my hometown of Rockford and stay here, I’m excited that the President, Governor, and UAW President are taking note and recognizing the workforce potential of our region,” said Sorensen.

History of Presidential Visits to Rockford Area

Biden's visit is the fifth visit from a sitting president to the Rockford area since 1960, and the first to Belvidere since Herbert Hoover in 1932.

  • Guy Stephens and Jenna Dooley contributed to this report
A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.
Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.