UAW strike presents political tightrope for Dems, GOP

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — The United Auto Workers’ national strike against General Motors Co., entering its third day, already is becoming a fault line in both national and Michigan politics.

Democratic presidential candidates are lining up to support striking UAW members, eager to show voters in states likely to be key to the 2020 election — like Michigan — that they are standing up for rank-and-file workers. And Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, both Democrats, jumped on picket lines to march with the union's rank-and-file and are likely to make repeat appearances as the strike continues.

Then-Democratic candidate for governor Gretchen Whitmer raises her hands with then-UAW President Dennis Williams, left, and Frank Stuglin, Assistant Director of Region 1, after accepting the endorsement from the UAW this morning.

President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers have taken more muted stances, expressing hope for a quick deal and displaying reticence to side with management in a high-profile labor dispute. For Trump, the political tightrope is an even more delicate balancing act: Michigan’s 16 electoral votes were key to Trump’s 2016 victory, and they figure to be essential to his chances of reelection.

Complicating the political calculation is the widening criminal investigation into union corruption that has produced nine convictions, led to a regional director being charged and implicated UAW President Gary Jones and his predecessor, Dennis Williams. Among the charges is misusing member dues and squandering them on poolside villa rentals in Palm Springs, booze, cigars, more than 100 rounds of golf and spending sprees at pro shops.

That's one reason politicians Republican and Democrat are careful to voice solidarity with the hourly employees walking picket lines across the country, and not so much the union itself. It's why Ohio's Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown, took to the Senate floor to say, "GM wouldn't be making a dime of profit without the workers who actually make their cars and trucks. Auto workers stood up and made sacrifices to help GM when times were tough."

The auto industry once again is political. Trump has met frequently with GM CEO Mary Barra, Dingell noted. But the Dearborn Democrat said the president can’t be seen as attempting to break the union if he wants to win votes from the UAW’s rank-and-file, which is part of his strategy for winning Michigan for a second time.

"There's a lot of rumors out there that he had another meeting with Mary Barra," she said. "That President Trump wants to try to break the union. If that gets out, he's going to have problems." 

After the president took to Twitter last month to slam GM for moving plants to China — an allegation that is not true — Barra met with the president in the White House on Sept. 5, in a meeting she later described as "productive and valuable." She has not had a second meeting with Trump, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Ten days later, UAW-GM members walked off the job. How long the strike lasts will determine the long-term political and economic impacts in Michigan or nationally, if any, Dingell said: "People feel a lot different on strikes if they are two weeks versus if they're two months."

Trump built his political brand on promises to keep open plants like the ones GM is planning to close in Michigan and Ohio, a pledge that helped deliver him to the Oval Office even as it failed to forestall GM's move to close its Lordstown Assembly Plant in northeast Ohio's Mahoning Valley.  

"He's fighting to keep plants open," Dingell said. "It'll be interesting to see how he positions himself. As long as GM is paying $1.50 an hour at the Blazer plant (in Mexico), it's going to be an issue... He got elected promising to stop plants from closing." 

Observers and analysts have been expecting the UAW to strike GM since the automaker announced in November 2018 a global restructuring that includes ending production at five North American plants. GM has since offered new positions to a majority of the 2,800 affected U.S. hourly workers, detailed new plant investments, created 1,800 new jobs and confirmed plans to sell its Lordstown plant to a new entity affiliated with Workhorse Group Inc., an Ohio-based electric-truck maker. 

"I've been expecting" a strike "since last December," Dingell said. "I heard members talking about it ever since GM closed those plants." 

Trump touts his "great relationship with the auto workers," hopes for a quick resolution to the strike and didn't rule out the possibility of offering federal mediators to end the walkout should both sides conclude that's necessary.

"I got tremendous numbers of votes from the auto workers," he said Monday at the White House. "I don’t want General Motors to be building plants outside of this country. As you know they built many plants in China and Mexico, and I don’t like that at all. My relationship has been very powerful with the auto workers — not necessarily the top person or two, but the people that work doing automobiles."

Trump moved to distance himself from GM's decision to stop production plants in Michigan, Maryland and Lordstown, near where he visited in 2017 and famously advised residents not to sell their homes because manufacturing jobs would be coming back to the economically distressed region under his presidency. 

"I’d like to see it work out but I don’t want General Motors building plants in China and Mexico," Trump said. "This was before my watch, and I don’t think they’ll be doing that. I had meetings with Mary Barra, the head of GM and I don’t want them leaving our country. I don’t want her building in China. I don’t want to build them in other countries — I don’t want these big massive auto plants built in other countries, and I don’t think they’ll be doing that anymore." 

"UAW’s been very good to me," he said. "The members have been been very good from the standpoint of voting. … Hopefully they’re going to work it out quickly and solidly." 

Predictions the president or his administration would move to meddle in the dispute because of potentially massive economic impact on the industrial Midwest have yet to materialize. The White House and GM moved quickly Tuesday to knock down a Politico report saying advisers to Trump are getting involved in the UAW's negotiations with GM. 

"This story is false," White House spokesman Judd Deere said. "The Trump Administration, including (economic advisers) Larry Kudlow and Peter Navarro, are not involved in the negotiations between the UAW and GM. As President Trump has said, we would like to see a fair and speedy conclusion to these talks."

GM added in a statement of its own: “The White House has no involvement in the negotiations. Negotiations have resumed. Our goal remains to reach an agreement that builds a stronger future for our employees and our business.”

Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist with the bipartisan Grassroots Midwest political consulting firm in Lansing, said the strike's political consequences are likely to grow the longer the work stoppage lasts. 

"Michigan has been here before," he said, referencing the political upheaval of the 2008 and 2009 federal bailouts of GM and the former Chrysler Group, which still reverberates today in Washington. "Most of the economists who are opining about this are telling us if this strike goes on for a few weeks, Michigan dips into kind of an single-state recession that could drag the rest of the country with it." 

Trump has "sort of staked his presidency on the economy and if it the economy goes south, that's a problem for him, Hemond said. "I think from the president's perspective, he would like to see this wrapped up quickly." 

It's an easy play for Democrats running for president to side with the UAW in the labor fight with GM, he added: "The C-Suite at GM only gets as many votes as any other individual. There's more votes there in showing solidarity, and it makes sense if you're in a Democratic primary. Organized labor has taken it on the chin in the recent years, but it's still a large part of their base." 

Washington-based Republican strategist John Feehery said a prolonged strike in which Trump is seen as sticking up for American workers in the face of GM's efforts to close plants in Michigan and Ohio could benefit him in the politically vital Midwest. 

"I think Trump is more supportive of the workers than the executives," he said. "This could mean a sea-change in politics and help Trump in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin."

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing