President Joe Biden came to Belvidere on Thursday to celebrate the restarting of the idled Stellantis plant and tout his role in supporting the United Auto Workers, whose strike negotiations made it possible.
In a speech before a jubilant crowd of union autoworkers at the Boone County community center, Biden, who became the first sitting president to join a picket line last month in Michigan, donned a red UAW/Belvidere T-shirt in a show of solidarity before delivering his address.
“The Belvidere Assembly Plant was the beating heart of this community for nearly six decades, just like it was back in Delaware, where I was raised,” Biden said. “Eight months ago, the plant idled indefinitely, 1,200 of you lost jobs. When that happens, the community loses more than jobs. They lose their sense of pride, lose their sense of being, lose their sense of dignity.”
Biden said getting Stellantis to reopen and reinvest in the Belvidere plant was a priority for him and the UAW.
Last week, Stellantis committed to investing nearly $5 billion to retool the plant for production of a new midsize truck, build an adjacent electric vehicle battery plant and create a “megahub” parts distribution center. Part of a tentative agreement to end a six-week strike by the UAW against the Big Three automakers, the plan is expected to bring thousands of jobs back to Belvidere.
The president’s visit marked the end of a long, tough year and the beginning of a new era for the 60-year-old auto plant and the small river city near Rockford. In February, Stellantis “indefinitely” idled the Belvidere Assembly Plant and laid off its last 1,200 workers after halting production of the Jeep Cherokee amid dwindling sales.
Many people in Belvidere feared it would shift from being an auto town to a ghost town.
One month later, a devastating tornado with 100 mph winds ripped through Belvidere on the last day of March, tearing the roof off the historic Apollo Theater during a packed heavy metal concert, killing one person and injuring 40, according to the National Weather Service.
The skies were much brighter Thursday for President Biden’s visit, both meteorologically and economically.
Hundreds of Belvidere auto plant workers lined up for more than a block on a closed-off downtown street Thursday morning in front of the Boone County community center ahead of the president’s remarks, basking in the sunshine and the surreal moment that few had imagined was coming.
Near the front of the long line was Steve Walters, 61, of Caledonia, a 30-year veteran of the Belvidere plant who was laid off when it shut down in February. At the time, Walters thought indefinitely idled meant forever.
“It looked pretty bleak to me,” Walters said. “I thought they were going to close the plant, I really did. Then this surprised me — they’re going to keep it open.”
A tool and die maker, Walters came to Belvidere in the mid ’90s, when the plant began building the Dodge Neon. He stayed around through the ups and downs of ownership changes, retooling and new models. And when the plant closed, he put his faith in the union and political leaders from the statehouse to the White House who pledged to reopen it.
Walters was far from alone. On Thursday, workers in red shirts took to a stage under video screens that read “President Joe Biden, Auto Plant Reopened” and “Standing With Workers,” as they waited for his arrival. Many sang along when the piped-in music began playing “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond.
“Good times never seemed so good,” the workers sang with extra gusto.
Speakers included Gov. J.B. Pritzker, UAW President Shawn Fain and Local 1268 President Matt Frantzen. But they were the opening acts for Biden, whose speech made a town of 25,000 the center of a growing union movement, a presidential campaign and the media universe, at least for a few hours.
Biden was greeted with rousing applause. But even as he spoke to a friendly and receptive crowd about the importance of autoworkers and unions to the domestic economy, he couldn’t escape international tensions over the Israel-Hamas war.
Only moments into his address, a protester interrupted the president’s speech by shouting, “President Biden, you need to call for a cease-fire in Gaza.”
The protester was escorted out as the crowd booed. Afterward, the left-wing anti-war group CODEPINK claimed credit for the disruption.
The president displayed more aggressiveness and intensity in calling out and comparing himself with his predecessor and potential general election rival, Donald Trump, than he has in the past.
Biden reminded the audience he was the first-ever president to walk a picket line with striking UAW members in Belleville, Michigan, on Sept. 26, while Trump on the same day went to a nonunion battery manufacturing plant near Detroit, where he said electric vehicle manufacturing would destroy the U.S. auto industry and kill jobs.
“He said if America invests in electric vehicles, it would drive down wages. It would destroy jobs, it would spell the end of the American automobile industry. Well, like almost everything else he’s said, he’s wrong. You have proved him wrong,” Biden said to cheers.
Biden also derided Trump by name for his negative portrayal of the country.
But the president’s focus was on the UAW and the idled auto plant. Biden recounted a June meeting in Chicago with Frantzen, a 30-year veteran of the Belvidere Assembly Plant, who became president of UAW Local 1268 only three weeks earlier.
“He told me how critical it was to get that plant up and online again,” Biden said. “So, I told my team, ‘Make Stellantis know Belvidere is a priority.’ And I got on the phone and let them know personally I thought it was a priority.”
When Biden’s speech wrapped up, the autoworkers poured into the bright sunshine outside the center, reveling in the moment.
Tonya Glover, 50, an electrician apprentice from Rockford, had worked at the Belvidere Assembly Plant since transferring from a Delaware auto plant in 2009. While she was on the assembly line for years, her new role kept her at the plant until September, where she helped tear down production equipment.
“We were actually taking out robots and we were decommissioning the plant,” Glover said. “It was so sad to see. We dismantled everything.”
Glover is now set to be rehired to prep the plant for the new products headed to Belvidere.
Jannette Blake, 54, of Rockford, had been on the assembly line at the Belvidere for 24 years before she was laid off in February. A transfer from Syracuse, Blake wasn’t ready to retire, and didn’t want to move again after just purchasing a house.
“So I just hung in there,” Blake said. “And this happened. It’s amazing.”
On Thursday, Blake shared the stage with union leaders and President Biden. Afterward, she stayed to watch the president’s motorcade, reflecting on a remarkable afternoon in Belvidere and the broader implications of plant restarting.
“It’s going to be great for the community, families are going to be back together,” Blake said. “And I just got to see Joe Biden, the president of the United States. I am just in such shock, that I was literally in the building with the president and so close. That was just awesome.”
The Belvidere plant opened under the Chrysler banner in 1965, with a white Plymouth Fury II sedan the first vehicle to roll off the line. Over the years, the plant was retooled several times, and made everything from the Dodge Neon to the Chrysler New Yorker. The plant became the exclusive home for the Jeep Cherokee in 2017, with more than 5,000 workers on three shifts building the SUV at its peak.
But demand for the plant’s sole product waned, and downsizing accelerated under new owner Stellantis, which was formed by the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Peugeot of France in January 2021.
U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, a Democrat whose 11th Congressional District includes Belvidere, was part of the multilayered political effort to get a new product for the plant. As he made his way out of the community center Thursday, Foster reflected on what the UAW victory would mean to Belvidere and the growing union movement nationally.
“This is going to be a turning point for the community of Belvidere,” Foster said. “And I think this will end up being a milestone in the development of unions and people’s attitudes toward them. This narrative that somehow unions have wrecked the economy of Illinois and the Rust Belt — try to tell that to Belvidere today.”
On Thursday night, union results were tallied and Local 1268 members voted overwhelmingly to ratify the UAW agreement with Stellantis, Frantzen said.
“It was a great day,” Frantzen said. “Definitely a reason to celebrate for the members, which they haven’t had in a long time.”