As the United Automobile Workers’ strike entered its second week, and expanded to 20 states, Republicans were divided on how much support to show for the labor union, but united on who to blame.
“If you take a look at what they’re doing with electric cars, electric cars are going to be made in China,” Donald Trump said in a Sunday interview with NBC News.
Trump didn’t take a position on the strike itself; other candidates did. By Friday morning, the GOP field fit into one camp that was largely critical of the UAW and President Biden’s support for organized labor, and another, larger camp arguing that delivering for workers meant abandoning the administration’s push for electric vehicles.
Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Doug Burgum led with criticism of the unions. In an interview with Fox News, Haley disparaged the union’s demand for 40% pay raises, and called the strike a consequence of Biden “constantly saying, ‘go union, go union,’” creating more “emboldened” organizers.
At a town hall in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Scott said that Biden had been “leased” by the unions, and suggested that Ronald Reagan provided a “great example” of leadership when he fired striking air traffic controllers; he elaborated in a statement on Friday, calling EVs “bad for workers” while accusing the “corrupt” UAW of demanding a “massive pay raise for a French-style work week.” And in an interview with NPR, Burgum said that non-union car manufacturers were showing the way forward.
“You can look all over America at new auto plants where there are non-union workers,” Burgum told NPR on Wednesday. “They’re happy. They’ve got great work. They’ve got great benefits. They love their communities.”
That response frustrated conservative populists, who see this as a moment for Biden’s challengers to articulate what they’d do for workers — not, like Haley, how much they want to beat organized labor.
“It really underscores the extent to which there just is no useful thinking about these issues on the old right,” said Oren Cass, the executive director of American Compass, who called the anti-labor reactions “zombie Reaganism.”
The Biden campaign also saw it as a liability for Republicans, quickly stitching together a video of Haley and Scott denouncing the president’s pro-union stances and jokingly presenting it as an endorsement.
Other Republicans, like Trump, reserved their blame for the Inflation Reduction Act and the Biden administration’s support for electric cars; its goal, which conservatives call impossible, is that half of all new cars sold by 2030 will be electric. But unions have eyed EVs warily, in part because they require significantly less labor to produce, and many of their key parts, such as batteries, are still dominated by foreign makers, particularly from China. Attacks focused on its green policies have clearly made the White House more nervous.
In Iowa, Ron DeSantis called “Biden’s push to impose electric vehicle mandates” the biggest threat to workers, and his energy plan promises to “save the American automobile” by repealing EV subsidies; on CNBC, Pence called the Biden agenda “good for Beijing and bad for Detroit.”
When Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg came to the House this week, Republicans stuck to that theme, with Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry warning that “the administration’s subsidization of the electric vehicles is killing their jobs,” and Michigan Rep. John James warning that the president would be “literally taking money away from UAW workers” in the long run.
“When companies are doing well, their workers should benefit, too – that’s why we have unions in this country,” Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance told Axios at a Wednesday newsmakers forum. “The way that climate policy has manifested itself in the auto industry is really, really bad for a lot of these workers.”
The GOP primary isn’t going to determine how the UAW’s limited strike ends, but Trump’s strategy — including a plan to rally in Detroit next week — has helped most Republicans figure out their response. A few stragglers are criticizing the union for demanding too much, but most are positioning themselves as defenders of manufacturing jobs against a green agenda. In Trump’s case he’s argued the UAW is “being sold down the river by their leadership” who are too afraid to take on Biden’s policies.
Democrats aren’t hiding their angst about this. They’ve been deliberating over sending Biden to the picket lines all week, which party figures like Hakeem Jeffries, Bernie Sanders, and John Fetterman have already visited. On Friday morning, UAW President Shawn Fain urged Biden to join them.
“For a very long time, progressives have gotten away with claiming that there’s a win-win here,” said Cass. “They say: Look at all the green jobs our policies create! The reality is that those are gross jobs, not net jobs. They get you only part-way out of the hole created by their policies.”
It’s a reliable strategy, pitting the Democratic party’s environmentalists, who want to leave carbon in the ground, against its working class allies. After some blue states required future homes to use electric stoves, DeSantis hit back with a tax cut for gas stoves — a largely political statement in a state where most people don’t use them. At campaign stops in Iowa last week, Haley suggested that the Biden administration wanted “everyone” to be driving electric cars by 2030, vastly over-stating its goals.
“One of the things that we really need to do is not become dependent on China for electric vehicles,” Haley said at a roundtable in Indianola. The Biden administration’s goal is an EV industry that doesn’t rely on Chinese manufacturing; the Republican response is that it’ll prop up a China-dominated industry for years before that happens, and it probably won’t.
“I don’t even really blame the workers, even though I think the union bosses are channeling this in the wrong direction,” Vivek Ramaswamy said on CNBC this week. “Who they really should be striking against is President Biden.”
The View From Shawn Fain
One irony, for Haley in particular, is that the right-to-work South has been getting the majority of electric vehicle investments since 2021. That’s the UAW’s chief concern — that a jump to EVs will create more non-union jobs, in an industry already dominated by proudly non-union Tesla.
During interviews, Fain has stressed that he doesn’t oppose the industry’s move to electrification — “anyone that doesn’t believe global warming is happening isn’t paying attention,” he told CBS — but that it needs to be a “just transition.” In contract talks, the union has pushed to tuck battery plant workers into union’s national wage agreement.
“The switch to electric engine jobs, battery production and other EV manufacturing cannot become a race to the bottom,” Fain said in June, after Ford got a $9.2 billion federal loan to build battery factories in Kentucky and Tennessee. “Not only is the federal government not using its power to turn the tide – they’re actively funding the race to the bottom with billions in public money.”
As for Trump? Fain has said it would be a “disaster” if the former president returned to office, even though he’s so far declined to endorse Biden for re-election. “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,” he said in a statement this week. “We can’t keep electing billionaires and millionaires that don’t have any understanding what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck.”
The View From Democrats
Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell said that Trump’s planned rally for workers was a distraction, and what mattered was getting the parties back to the table — something the White House can’t just demand.
“Trump is making a very, very big mistake in his talking points, when he talks about these cars being 100% Chinese,” said Dingell. “We’re in a competitive marketplace. These cars are 50% of sales in some parts of the world. They’re going to be built. I’m fighting so that we get them built by American auto workers with good paying union jobs. That’s why these negotiations are so important. It’s not a talking point moment.”
- In Politico, Olivia Olander, Nick Niedzwiadek, and Doug Palmer dig into Trump’s history with labor unions: “When the UAW waged a six-week strike against GM in 2019, Trump mostly stayed silent.”
- In Jacobin, Dianne Feeley says that a victorious UAW strike could organize the emerging EV industry: “If the contract rolls back concessions, battery workers will flock to the UAW.”