In what could be a preview of their strategies for the 2024 presidential election, both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will visit Michigan in the coming days, in connection with the ongoing strike by the United Auto Workers union.
Biden will travel to Michigan on Tuesday to meet with UAW workers who are picketing facilities owned by the Big Three automakers: Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. Trump is expected to be in the state the following day for a rally that his campaign has said will be attended by current and former labor union members, though not necessarily members of the UAW.
Both men have complicated relationships with the labor movement. Although Biden has been a longtime supporter of unions in general and has appointed a union-friendly majority to the National Labor Relations Board, some of his actions as president have angered union members. Trump’s administration was distinctly less friendly to labor, but the former president still received significant support from union members in both of his previous presidential runs.
With the UAW strike now in its second week, the president and the man most likely to be his opponent in next year’s election are focused on signaling solidarity with working-class Americans, whose political loyalties have been malleable in recent years.
Union attitudes shifted
Although union members were long considered a Democratic monolith when it comes to U.S. politics, the modern-day truth is more complicated.
When Trump won the presidency in 2016, he did so with 43% of votes from households that included at least one labor union member, according to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Polling. Against the vocally pro-union Biden in 2020, that percentage fell to 40%, but still represented a significant slice of the union vote.
“There has been a trend of union workers becoming identified more often as Republican over the last 10 to 15 years,” said Kevin Reuning, an assistant professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio. “There is a lot more diversity among union members than people think.”
Reuning told VOA that even though Trump had scant history of backing unions when he first ran for election, his willingness to tear up trade agreements that union members blame for shifting manufacturing jobs overseas probably played a big role in attracting a significant share of the union vote.
For example, Trump has been able to appeal to many union voters by blasting deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed by former Democratic President Bill Clinton.
“Trump doesn’t have the baggage that Democrats — at least some Democrats — have of NAFTA. It’s important to remember that a majority of Democrats voted against NAFTA back in the ’90s. But it was signed by a Democratic president, and it kind of hangs over their heads still,” Reuning said.
UAW head partial to Biden
After Trump’s team made his intention to travel to Detroit public, UAW President Shawn Fain released a blistering statement indicating that the former president would not be welcomed by his organization.
“Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers,” Fain said. “We can’t keep electing billionaires and millionaires that don’t have any understanding what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to get by and expecting them to solve the problems of the working class.”
By contrast, the UAW head explicitly invited Biden to visit striking union members when he announced an expansion of the strike on Sept. 22.
“We invite and encourage everyone who supports our cause to join us on the picket line from our friends and families all the way up to the president of the United States,” Fain said.
Still, Biden’s position with unions in the U.S. may not be as strong as it once was. Some union members were upset last year when Biden signed legislation compelling railroad workers to accept a contract that their union had voted against, preventing a strike.
Among the members of the UAW, Biden’s push to speed the transition from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric vehicles is seen as a threat to jobs. Some of the skilled workers who are needed to build conventional automobiles might find themselves less in demand in a world where cars run on electric motors.
While on paper Biden may be the more pro-union candidate, there is historical precedent for candidates of the Republican Party — historically more hostile to labor — being able to peel off union votes in certain circumstances.
In a recent article in Compact magazine, journalist and author Michael Lind observed, “[P]eople work in particular industries, and even an anti-union politician can appeal to some wage-earners by promising to preserve or create jobs in the sectors in which they toil. For this reason, in the late 19th century, most factory, mine, and railroad workers supported the protectionist, pro-industry Republican party of William McKinley, in spite of the hostility to unions shared by many Republican politicians and business elites.”
Even former President Ronald Reagan, whose decision to fire striking air traffic control workers in 1981 earned him the enmity of many in the labor movement, was still able to secure 46% of the vote of union households when he ran for reelection three years later.
On Monday, Trump used his social media network, Truth Social, to attack Biden and to claim that the president’s decision to go to Michigan was only an attempt to play catch-up with the Trump campaign.
“Crooked Joe Biden, who is killing the United Autoworkers with his WEAK stance on China and his ridiculous insistence on All Electric Cars, every one of which will be made in China, saw that I was going to Michigan this week (Wednesday!), so the Fascists in the White House just announced he would go there tomorrow,” Trump said.
The former president went on to attack his successor for his trade policies, his electric vehicle program, and to make evidence-free allegations of corruption, and he called on UAW members to demand that the union’s leadership endorse him in the upcoming presidential election.
Asked if Biden’s trip to Michigan was related to Trump’s announced visit, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Monday said, “Absolutely not. This is a decision to visit the picket line, and it was based off his own desire. This is what the president wanted to do, to stand with auto workers.”
Her comments echoed those of Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“President Biden is doing what he has always done, which is to stand with American workers,” he said. “He is proud of being the most pro-union, pro-worker president, not only compared to the Trump administration, with its anti-union policies, but really compared to any modern president.”