UAW workers at a Detroit rally with Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sept. 15, 2023 | Ken Coleman
Following the expiration of contracts at midnight, state leaders and lawmakers on the state and national stage are weighing in as the United Auto Workers (UAW) union begins its historic strike on Michigan’s Detroit Three automakers.
With support from other labor groups, including the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers(AFT) Michigan and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) — of which the UAW is a member — the union is holding its first set of stand up strikes at automotive plants in Wentzville, Mo.; Toledo, Ohio; and Wayne, Mich.
As many Democratic officials in Michigan offered support for striking workers, the reaction from many Republicans was muted, with many criticizing automakers and Democratic President Joe Biden for promoting electric vehicle production. Many GOP officials, particularly state lawmakers, haven’t commented at all.
Biden addressed the strike from the White House on Friday.
“Over the past decade auto companies have seen record profits, including over the last few years because of the extraordinary skill and sacrifice of the UAW workers,” Biden said. “Those record profits have not been shared fairly, in my view, with those workers.”
In a social media post on Friday, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer offered support for striking autoworkers.
“When our workers succeed, our state succeeds. We are all on Team Michigan. I’m proud to stand with the hardworking men and women of the UAW and remain hopeful that this strike can be resolved quickly,” Whitmer said.
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson also offered solidarity in multiple posts, saying she was “Proud to stand with and #StandUp for workers @UAW and across the country.”
Autoworkers also garnered support from Democrats in the Michigan House and Senate with House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit) and Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) releasing statements on the effort.
“The Michigan Senate Democrats stand with the hardworking men and women of the UAW,” Brinks said. “They are more than just talented and dedicated workers; they are also key contributors to our state’s economic success, and as such, their pay and benefits should reflect the value they bring to their employers and our communities. They have the right to speak up together with one voice, and I support them in using that collective power.”
State Sen. Michael Webber (R-Rochester Hills) encouraged a fair and fast resolution to the strike, emphasizing the potential economic impacts of the strike.
“The push to transition to electric vehicles has created understandable economic uncertainty among auto workers and it is vital that all parties negotiate in good faith and do everything possible to reach a timely settlement that allows automakers to continue creating good-paying jobs for the prosperity of Michigan’s future,” Webber said.
Michigan House Republican spokesperson Jeremiah Ward did not respond to a request for comment.
While the Michigan Democratic Party also released a statement in solidarity with autoworkers, the Michigan Republican Party had offered little public comment on the strike as of Friday afternoon. Party Chair Kristina Karamo and Co-Chair Malinda Pego did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Federal lawmakers also spoke out on the strikes, with U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and U.S. Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), Hillary Scholten (D-Grand Rapids), Dan Kildee (D-Flint), Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor) and Haley Stevens (D-Waterford Twp.) sharing support for striking workers.
Peters, who walked the picket line Friday morning at the Ford plant in Wayne, said, “I stand in solidarity with UAW workers as they strike to fight for a contract that gives them the wages, job security, and benefits they deserve. UAW members made huge sacrifices to help save the auto industry in 2008 and now that the Big Three are making historic profits, the workers deserve to get their fair share of the success. UAW workers are making the best cars in the world in Michigan and it’s critical they continue to be the future of the industry, especially as we transition to electric vehicles.”
Dingell said that autoworkers “were the ones who gave when this industry was in trouble over a decade ago, and now they want to see their wages keep up with inflation through cost-of-living adjustments. It’s not fair for someone to be a temporary worker for 8-10 years. They deserve a decent wage and benefits, and need to be assured that as the industry undergoes transition, their livelihoods are safe, and they won’t be left behind.”
Meanwhile, many of Michigan’s Republican U.S. representatives criticized the Biden administration and the push to electrify the auto industry in their statements on the strike.
U.S Rep. John James (R-Shelby Twp.) said the Biden administration has signaled that it does not care about UAW workers, saying the administration is wasting tax dollars in its push to support a transition to electric vehicles, and that the transition is supporting manufacturing in China.
“We all want the UAW and Big Three leaders to negotiate in good faith, to negotiate quickly, and to resolve this pressing matter so that we can refocus our energy on the real fight: holding the Biden Administration accountable for how they’re prioritizing our adversaries over our automotive workers. The fight is not with the workers on the picket line in Detroit; the fight is with the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., and that’s what I’m focused on,” James said.
U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland) issued similar criticisms, saying the strike and its impacts were a result of policies such as the president’s push for electric vehicles and “burdensome” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) said the UAW and the Detroit Three need to understand the gravity of the strike and its impact on suppliers.
“Our domestic supply chain should not be a bargaining chip to gamble with,” Walberg said.
“However, the uneasiness and uncertainty felt by autoworkers is justifiable with policies coming from Washington that threaten the future of the domestic auto industry,” Walberg said.
Like his Republican colleagues, Walberg criticized the White House’s push for electric vehicles, calling on Washington to “do its part and allow innovation, American ingenuity, and the free market to guide our future and maintain our status, leading the world,” while encouraging the UAW and the Big Three to overcome this impasse.
While Republicans at the national level offered muted support for the strikes, this support remained entangled with criticisms of the auto industry’s transition to manufacturing electric vehicles.
U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) in a social media post said he was “rooting for the auto workers across our country demanding higher wages and an end to political leadership’s green war on their industry.”
In another post, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said autoworkers deserve a raise, and “to have their jobs protected from Joe Biden’s stupid climate mandates that are destroying the US auto industry and making China rich.”
Former President Donald Trump, a Republican who’s running again in 2024, blasted UAW leadership in an interview on “Meet the Press” set to air Sunday, saying workers had been sold out by their leadership.
“The autoworkers are not going to have any jobs when you come right down to it, because if you take a look at what they’re doing with electric cars, electric cars are going to be made in China,” Trump said, arguing consumers should have a choice between electric and gasoline cars.
Trump also criticized UAW President Shawn Fain, who previously said a second Trump presidency would be a “disaster.” The UAW has not made an endorsement for president.
“I think he’s not doing a good job in representing his union because he’s not going to have a union in three years from now,” Trump said of Fain. “Those jobs are all going to be gone because all of those electric cars are going to be made in China.”
Joshua Murray, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University who studies the role of class conflict in shaping politics and policy outcomes, said this support reflects public opinion, with recent polls showing more than two thirds of Americans support organized labor.
“In some areas, working-class union members voted Republican,” Murray said. “They have an incentive to least somewhat support the action.”
Politicians usually frame their messages to the groups where they draw support, Murray said.
With Democratic messaging focusing on corporate greed and pro-labor movements, there is no real risk for democrats to support labor actions. However, Republicans draw support from an upper-middle class base that tends to be more supportive of corporate CEOs, Murray said.
While Republicans can’t discuss corporate greed or defend Democrats, they can’t oppose the unions because some of their base is white, working-class union members, Murray said.
“They’re walking a tightrope right, so the easiest tightrope is to make it political and attack the Democrats as a way of supporting the unions,” Murray said.
While attacking an opposing party isn’t unique to Republicans, showing tepid support for unions is surprising, Murray said.
“I think that’s a sign of how much support has changed in recent years for organized labor,” he said.
Additionally, the simultaneous strike on the Detroit Three automakers will allow politicians to focus on foreign competition concerns, Murray said.
Murray also noted that the language of sacrifice used by the unions is similar to that used during the union’s first strike in 1936.
“The kind of rhetoric around the union’s kind of justification is very much that they sacrificed when there was the economic crash and they sacrificed for COVID to help the industry. Profits came back and they didn’t give anything back to the workers,” Murray said.
“We shared sacrifice when the [Great] Depression hit, kept the industry afloat, and then all the profits came back to GM and nothing came back to the workers and that’s why we’re going on strike.”
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