Nearly 150,000 members of the United Auto Workers union are prepared to go on strike at the end of this week if General Motors, Ford, and Stellaris don’t meet their demands for higher wages, traditional pension benefits, an end to two-tier workforces, and the unionization of battery plants. The threatened strike, which the Biden administration hopes will be averted, follows a surge in labor militancy in the United States. The “strike wave” was triggered by revelations of the dependence of the US economy on “essential workers” and the tight labor market temporarily created during and after the pandemic. In this year alone, 341,000 workers have taken part in 247 strikes.
As a pro-labor president, Joe Biden easily defeats Donald Trump. Many of Biden’s pro-union policies are incremental and unlikely to radically improve the situation of organized labor in the United States, like the tweaking of “card-check” rules for workplace unionization pushed through by Biden appointees on the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB. Still, the contrast with his predecessor is sharp. Trump appointed conventional union-busting Republicans to the NLRB, the federal courts, and the Department of Labor. To be sure, any other Republican president would have done the same, as there is no pool of pro-labor in-and-outer appointees and judges in the mostly anti-union GOP as it now exists.
But people 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. Workers then feared that they would be hurt by the agrarian populism of William Jennings Bryan. McKinley, and later Calvin Coolidge, attracted urban working-class support with the slogan of “the full dinner pail.”
Dinner pails have fallen out of fashion, but like the Republicans of a century ago, Trump can appeal to auto workers and other industrial workers on the basis of protectionist economic nationalism. He fulfilled his promise to renegotiate NAFTA, replacing it with the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which includes rules of origin more favorable to American manufacturers. Trump’s tariffs on imports from China and other countries had mixed effects, necessarily hurting import-dependent manufacturing industries and their customers in the short run in some cases, while helping other sectors. The prestige business and financial press unanimously declared Trump’s trade wars to be a failure, but Biden has kept Trump’s tariffs on imports from China.
The partial continuity between Trump and Biden on trade may immunize Biden against some attacks in a 2024 rematch of the two aging rivals. But the Biden administration’s push for rapid electrification of the automobile sector and the rest of the U.S. economy has created resentment and alarm among some manufacturing workers.
Not a single Republican voted for the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA—which, in spite of its name, was essentially a massive subsidy program for green-energy investments. But a majority of the investments in new clean energy manufacturing sparked by the IRA to date has been in Republican-dominated states, many of them with right-to-work laws hostile to labor unions in the South and Southwest. According to Reuters, 83 percent of new factories making solar panels, batteries, and other clean energy products are located in right-to-work states.
Instead of creating well-paid union jobs, as Biden promised, the IRA is creating mostly nonunion jobs, many of them in low-wage locations. Shawn Fain, the president of the UAW, spoke for many workers angry with this result when he told The Guardian: “So far it’s been disappointing. If the IRA continues to bring sweatshops and a continued race to the bottom, it will be a tragedy.”
In addition to feeling left out of most Biden-era industrial subsidies, many auto workers fear that their jobs will be eliminated by a transition to electric vehicles. Although Fain has criticized Trump, the UAW has withheld its endorsement of Biden for re-election, in part because of anger over issues related to the push for EV manufacturing. By contrast, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a beneficiary of the campaign for economy-wide electrification, has already endorsed Biden.
Trump has sought to exploit discontent among manufacturing workers with the environmental priorities of the Biden administration. Addressing UAW members in a video on social media on Sept. 4, Trump denounced federal support for EVs, told UAW members that they were being betrayed by their leaders, and promised to “deliver higher wages for auto workers.” With similar appeals, Trump was able to win the support of many unionized workers in manufacturing states in 2016 and 2020.
The Electoral College map favors a rerun of this strategy. In 2020, fewer than 1 percent of all voters, located in three swing states—Wisconsin, Arizona, and Nevada—prevented an Electoral College tie between Trump and Biden, which would have thrown the decision to the Republican House of Representatives. By a tiny margin of 0.77 percent, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin in 2016; Biden defeated Trump in Wisconsin with an even tinier slice of the vote, 0.63 percent.
Assuming that he is the Republican nominee, Trump’s hopes for returning to the White House may depend on his ability to persuade manufacturing workers in Wisconsin and other Midwestern industrial states that, in spite of the anti-union record of his earlier administration, he will protect their jobs and livelihoods not only from foreign competition but also from Democratic environmental policies.