When Michigan workers vote for presidential candidates in the state’s primary election Tuesday, they will do so without relying on endorsements from the United Auto Workers, Teamsters and AFL-CIO.
None of the three unions have announced endorsements, even as Democratic and Republican presidential candidates toured the union-heavy state this week. Representatives from each told The Detroit News they are either not commenting on their endorsement process or are not ready to announce support.
“The UAW is conducting a survey of its members; we have some returns already in but not all,” UAW President Dennis Williams said in a statement to The Detroit News. “UAW regions and locals have different processes they use. It’s totally voluntary. At this time we do not anticipate endorsing before the Michigan primary.”
By this time in the 2008 primary — the last time Democrats were in contention for a presidential nomination — the Teamsters had endorsed Barack Obama. The UAW and AFL-CIO didn’t throw their support to Obama until June because union leaders were divided between Obama and Hillary Clinton.
So it’s not unprecedented for the unions to hold off endorsements during the primary season. But it does raise questions about disagreement among leaders and rank-and-file on which candidate — or party — to support this year.
Republican candidate Donald Trump has the backing of many blue-collar workers that labor unions have prided themselves on representing. In a Detroit News/WDIV-TV statewide poll conducted in mid-February, Trump led the pack in Michigan with the support of 25 percent of 600 likely GOP primary voters surveyed. Republican men without college degrees chose Trump by a 2-1 margin over Ted Cruz.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Trump is ushering in a new generation of “Reagan Democrats.”
“The thing is, though, that many of the working-class whites who used to vote Democratic — the ‘Reagan Democrats’ — have been functionally Republican for decades,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of political website Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“Trump may be activating some of these voters for the first time as primary voters, but the vast majority of them probably were already Republican at the presidential general-election level.”
On the Democratic side, former U.S. Secretary of State Clinton has her union loyalists, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders says a growing grassroots movement of organized labor rank-and-file members support him.
Through the end of February, none of the candidates had received major financial backing from the AFL-CIO, Teamsters or UAW, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Political consultant T.J. Bucholz, president and CEO of Lansing-based Vanguard Public Affairs, contends their silence isn’t necessarily about internal turmoil. It’s about saving money and energy.
“Labor is trying to keep its powder dry because they think the money is going to be better spent in the general than it is in the primary,” he said. “If you’re unions with declining enrollment in some cases, an aging membership, with fewer resources ... you only have so many bullets in the gun.”
Major unions rallied around Obama to help elect him for two terms. While unions historically lean toward Democrats, the Teamsters in the 1980s endorsed Republican Ronald Reagan twice, as well as George H.W. Bush. An official with the AFL-CIO, which traditionally endorses the same candidate as the UAW, said she doesn’t believe the organization has ever endorsed a Republican for president. The UAW hasn’t endorsed a Republican in recent decades; a spokesman couldn’t be sure if it had never done so.
Back in September, Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa kept open the possibility of again backing a Republican. “It’s long past time for Republicans and Democrats to put aside their differences and work together for the good of our country,” he said.
Teamsters spokesman Galen Munroe said this week there was no update, and the union is not commenting on the endorsement process.
The AFL-CIO, composed of 56 unions, does not necessarily talk to rank-and-file members before backing a candidate. It polls leaders from those unions. Local chapters such as the Michigan AFL-CIO, which includes more than 1 million active members, do not typically endorse a presidential candidate without the blessing of the national organization.
Sanders made an appeal to labor Thursday in Lansing when he condemned the Trans Pacific Partnership and North American Free Trade Agreement. He said it’s ultimately up to unions on when and whom to endorse.
“They need to make their own decisions, but I think if you look at my record on issues of importance to the trade union movement (compared to) Secretary Clinton’s record over the years, I think it’s very clear that my views are the views that reflect the needs of millions of American workers,” he said.
Although the UAW, Teamsters and AFL-CIO have not backed a candidate, Sanders has picked up key endorsements from National Nurses United, Communication Workers of America and American Postal Workers Union.
Clinton’s endorsements include Service Employees International Union; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; American Teachers Federation, National Education Association; Laborers International Union of North America; and International Association of Machinists.
Clinton on Friday appeared at a Detroit manufacturing plant to lay out a “new bargain” plan that included strengthening organized labor and raising the minimum wage.
“The unions that helped build our country and the middle class are under concerted attack,” she said at auto supplier Detroit Manufacturing Systems. “And it’s no surprise Americans are angry, is it?” She added, “Companies have to start treating workers like assets to be invested in, not costs to be cut.”
Trump has not received any major union endorsements. However he made his case for UAW support during a rally Friday in Warren. He spent much of the event discussing Ford Motor Co.’s plans to build a $2.5 billion plant in Mexico. He also said he isn’t “controlled” by unions because he’s largely funding his own campaign.
“I don’t want your money, but I do want your vote,” he said.
There was little reaction at Trump’s rally when he asked how many union members were there. One UAW member of 30 years in attendance was Michael HuZar. He said he supports Trump because he’s fed up with traditional politics and believes Trump is “a fair businessman” who would “give people what they deserve for a living.”
Kim Ward, a former UAW member of nearly 14 years at American Axle & Manufacturing, was at the Sanders event Thursday. She said she doesn’t understand how anyone “in their right mind” could support Trump. “How could we have a president who is offensive to everybody? Everything that comes out of his mouth offends somebody.”
UAW chief Williams in February said both Clinton and Sanders would “be great candidates to be president.” When asked this week, he said the union is “watching with great interest both parties,” but went on to say “Republicans have decided to throw stones on who’s more conservative rather to discuss issues.”
That has not stopped UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, from coming out for Sanders. “I’m angry that some would imply that Women who support Bernie don’t support women,” she tweeted in February. “Not productive not true!”
The UAW could be experiencing flashbacks from 1992, when Bill Clinton was making his first run for the White House. The union was an early supporter of Democrat Tom Harkin until he dropped out of the race in early March. The UAW eventually endorsed Clinton over incumbent President Bush, even though Clinton supported NAFTA.
“There was debate,” Owen Bieber, UAW president from 1983-1995, told The News in a Thursday phone interview. “NAFTA was a big concern.”
Bieber said he isn’t concerned about UAW members turning out for Trump: “I think when the time comes, they will do the right thing,” he said. “And I don’t think the right thing would be a President Trump or, for that matter, a Republican president.”
Detroit News staff writers Keith Laing, Michael Martinez and Jim Lynch contributed.