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USA. The UAW strike: Biden and Trump court metalworkers

by Domenico Maceri * –

SAN LUIS OBISPO (USA). “If you strike, you’re fired.” Here’s how Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and candidate for the Republican nomination would resolve the situation of metalworkers in Michigan represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) who are using their power to negotiate a new contract by abstaining from work. Scott continued to explain that this is exactly what Ronald Reagan did in 1981 when the then US president fired all 11,000 air traffic controllers. Current President Joe Biden took a diametrically opposite stance by traveling to Michigan, joining the strikers to support them in their fight for fairer compensation and benefits. This is a historic action because presidents typically maintain neutrality in these situations, encouraging both sides to mediate. Biden, however, sided with the workers, declaring that Ford, General Motors and Chrysler (now Stellantis), the three big car manufacturers, have made huge profits and the workers also “deserve” compensation commensurate with their efforts.
There is no doubt that the Democratic Party has historically been the natural ally of unions, but Republicans have tried to court workers’ votes with bogus promises. Donald Trump also traveled to Michigan instead of attending his party’s second debate hosted by Fox News. As an entrepreneur, the former president did everything he could to avoid the use of union member workers and in some cases was reported. Like other business leaders, Trump saw and sees workers as a necessary evil by subordinating his businesses to profits instead of adequate employee compensation. In Michigan the former president made a speech to a group of metalworkers who are not members of any union asking them to convince UAW leaders to offer him their endorsement. These metalworkers who do not contribute dues to the UAW union have no influence on endorsements. Nonetheless, Trump created the false impression that he was speaking to union members. UAW President Shawn Fain understood everything and declared that he will not meet with Trump because the former president does not care about the plight of workers, instead serving the interests of “the billionaires.”
Biden and Trump’s visits to Michigan are significant because the Great Lakes State, in addition to being the heart of the American auto industry, is politically competitive. Trump won the state in 2016 but then in 2020 Biden prevailed. In a sense in recent years Democrats have managed to take political leadership with slight majorities in both the House and Senate and also with the election of Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
The visits of Biden or Trump, the probable candidates for the 2024 presidential elections, are therefore not surprising. Neither seems to have rivals for the nomination even if in the Republican field meetings continue between the 7 candidates who hope to take the nomination away from Trump . The former president then acts as if he already has the nomination in his pocket by absenting himself from the Fox News-sponsored debates.
Even before his visit alongside metalworkers in Michigan, Biden had demonstrated his traditional defense of workers despite the potentially negative side of green energy. Biden’s push to develop electric cars, which are easier to manufacture, could reduce the number of metalworkers’ jobs in the future. The current occupant of the White House has set the goal that 2-thirds of cars sold in America by 2032 will be electric. Furthermore, the three large car factories Ford, General Motors (GM) and Stellantis will have to invest huge sums to face two competitions. The first is the internal one and the second represented by China.
The vast majority of electric cars in America are produced in the South of the country where unions are almost non-existent for political reasons. There is an anti-union climate in the South and without unions production costs are lower. The Wall Street Journal estimated that Tesla produces its cars using workers without union representation. Employees of Elon Musk, owner of Tesla, receive an average salary of 34 thousand dollars per year compared to 69 thousand for Stellantis, 75 thousand for Ford and 80 thousand for GM.
The second challenge is global with a race in which the United States is absolutely not in a great position. It is estimated that almost 2 thirds of electric cars are produced in China and the Chinese company BYD has already surpassed Tesla in the number of cars produced. The problem for Chinese companies is Trump’s 27.5 percent tariff, significantly higher than the 10 percent in Europe.
The former president looks to the past on the issue of electric cars, asserting that “they are a disaster for the UAW and American consumers.” Trump claims they will all be “made in China and will be too expensive… causing the end” of jobs for metalworkers whether they are union members or not. Trump’s position is accepted by members of the Republican Party, which, as expressed by the slogan MAGA (Make America Great Again), intends to recreate the America of the past.
The problem, however, exists because the situation of metalworkers as well as other unions in America is not very promising even if some light is starting to appear. The Hollywood screenwriters’ strike is over and the negotiated contract, subject to members’ approval, appears to be a step forward. One of the main issues was the issue of using artificial intelligence to reproduce the creations of screenwriters and actors without compensating their creative work.
The issue of a change to electric cars that would have a major impact on climate change also requires serious negotiations. Trump and the Republicans, looking back, reflect a myopic view of the situation. In the end the issue will lie not in the inevitable change to electric cars but in the usual power struggle between companies and workers. We already know which side the Republicans are on. As for Democrats, the challenge will be to keep pushing in the right direction while hoping that workers aren’t seduced by Republican rhetoric.

* Domenico Maceri, PhD, is professor emeritus at Allan Hancock College, Santa Maria, California. Some of his articles have won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.

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