UAW strike: Biden, Trump seek blue-collar votes in swing state Michigan

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United Auto Workers from Louisville Kentucky rally in support of striking UAW members, in Detroit, Michigan, September 15, 2023.

Rebecca Cook | Reuters

DETROIT – Strikes by the United Auto Workers union against General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis will get the presidential treatment this week in Michigan. Twice, in fact.

President Joe Biden is expected to visit a picket line Tuesday in the Great Lake State following a public invitation Friday from UAW President Shawn Fain. Former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner among Republicans in the 2024 presidential race, is scheduled to hold a rally Wednesday night at an auto supplier in Clinton Township, Michigan.

Biden and Trump are effectively tied in the polls over a year out from the election. Each 2024 presidential candidate is trying to win over blue-collar voters such as Darius Collier, one of roughly 18,300 autoworkers currently on strike who’s “indifferent” about the candidates themselves.

“It would be good if they actually show the support that we need to get through this,” said Collier, whose Mopar facility in Centerline, Michigan, is one of 10 parts and distribution centers set for potential closure under a recent contract proposal by Stellantis to consolidate facilities.

Michigan voters helped both Biden and Trump in winning the White House during the past two presidential elections in 2020 and 2016, respectively. They’ve both gained union support, but in different ways.

Biden endorsement withheld

While the UAW has historically supported Democrats, including Biden in 2020, Fain is withholding the union’s reendorsement of the president, who has touted himself as the “most pro-union president in American history.” Trump has won support of many rank-and-file union members.

“Both President Trump and President Biden understand the importance that Michigan has electorally and there’s a realization that elections can be very close, so they want to be seen frequently, and the UAW strike is a wonderful, high-publicity moment to deploy their message and be seen once again,” said Mark Burton, a partner at Honigan law firm and a former of chief strategist of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is a Democrat.

UAW member Niko Shinn and Darius Collier walk a picket on September 25, 2023, outside a Mopar plant owned by Stellantis. Michigan.

Michael Wayland / CNBC

Michigan Democrats such as Whitmer and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell have attended UAW rallies since the UAW’s Sept. 15 strikes began. Fain, however, has chosen to support Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator who ran against Biden for 2020. Fain appeared alongside Sanders in Washington, D.C., as well as at a recent UAW event in Detroit. Fain, who has been critical of Biden’s claim to be the “most pro union president,” has said that he must prove it. Fain has made it clear what he thinks about Trump. We can’t elect billionaires or millionaires who don’t understand what it’s like to struggle and live paycheck-to-paycheck and expect them to solve problems for the working class. The UAW is not associated with Trump’s rally on Wednesday at Drake Enterprises. Drake Enterprises is a non-union provider of engine, transmission, and other components to heavy truck, agricultural, and automotive markets. But UAW members have previously attended and participated in Trump’s events in Michigan.

Trump stokes EV anxieties

Fain has previously said a second Trump term in the White House would be a “disaster.” Trump is still gaining support from blue-collar workers. “He is a good man and seems to know more about negotiating than politics. According to Michigan polling firm EPIC*MRA, Trump’s popularity among union members increased in recent months as Biden’s dropped. Trump led Biden 46% to 43% among union members in an August survey, after Biden led Trump 51 % to 42% in June, according to Bernie Porn, president of EPIC*MRA.

“With union members, he has been so supportive of just about everything that union members want. The one thing that they’re concerned about is the push towards electric vehicles because they’re concerned about the fewer numbers of employees it takes to build an electric vehicle,” Porn said.

Electric vehicles, or EVs, are expected to require less labor and parts than the traditional vehicles equipped with internal combustion engines. They are expected to be one of several talking points Trump discusses during his Wednesday rally.

“President Trump’s rhetoric in his position stances, I think, stands clearly with the vast majority of the rank-and-file of the UAW who are concerned about their jobs being eliminated by this Biden administration forced transition to electric vehicles,” said Jamie Roe, a Republican strategist based in Macomb County, Michigan, where Trump’s rally is being held.

Fain has said the union is withholding a reelection endorsement for Biden until the union’s concerns about the auto industry’s transition to all-electric vehicles are addressed.

Biden’s visit may be an olive branch to assist in the UAW’s eventual endorsement as well as potential leverage for the union in its ongoing negotiations with the Detroit automakers.

“I think the president’s visit, particularly if Shawn Fain is joining

on a picket line, I think it is another stroke of strategy that increases the pressure and increases the overall strength of the union when it comes to the actual negotiations with the autos,” Burton said.