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Susan J. Demas: The UAW won the strike, so why doesn’t Donald Trump want to talk about it?

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Susan J. Demas: The UAW won the strike, so why doesn’t Donald Trump want to talk about it?

Nov 28, 2023 | 4:11 am ET
By Susan J. Demas
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Susan J. Demas: The UAW won the strike, so why doesn’t Donald Trump want to talk about it?
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Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Drake Enterprises, a non-union automotive parts manufacturer, on September 27, 2023 in Clinton Township, Michigan. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

After decades of eroding wages and benefits, UAW workers this month won blockbuster contracts with the Detroit Three that few thought possible.

During the “Stand Up Strike” — an homage to the Sit-down Strike against General Motors in Depression Era Flint that spawned the first industry collective bargaining agreement — the union for the first time took on GM, Ford and Stellantis simultaneously, with plants being called up to the picket line at strategic times.

Workers will now see raises ranging from 33% to 160%, with less time needed to achieve the top pay rate, as well as strike pay and better retirement benefits. All three automakers agreed to bring thousands of electric vehicle and battery plant jobs under the union’s national agreements — a key concern for the bumpy transition to electric vehicles that’s often resulted in lower-paying, non-union jobs.

“There were many in the media and in the corporate class who were saying we didn’t know what we were doing, and they thought we’d never get a deal,” UAW President Shaw Fain said in Chicago this month. “But then we got all three. We weren’t going to stop short of pounding everything we could out of these companies.”

The UAW’s victory capped a huge year for organized labor, with unions winning big concessions from UPS, Kaiser Permanente and major Las Vegas resort companies

With 76% of Americans siding with UAW workers in a CNN poll — and unions overall enjoying an 67% approval rating in a separate Gallup survey — even some Republicans took a break from their typical union-bashing to issue at least tepid support for the workers, while trashing environmentally friendly policies. 

Susan J. Demas: The UAW won the strike, so why doesn’t Donald Trump want to talk about it?
Members of the UAW picket line in Delta Township, Michigan on September 29, 2023. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

“The all Electric Car is a disaster for both the United Auto Workers and the American Consumer,” former President Donald Trump declared on social media shortly after the strike began, darkly predicting that it will mean the union “will be wiped out.”

Trump’s sometimes populist rhetoric never translated to actual policy, with his much-ballyhooed 2017 tax cut resulting in headlines like: “Trump’s tax cuts helped billionaires pay less than the working class for first time.”

Still, when Trump announced he would head to Michigan shortly after the UAW launched its historic strike in September, it was hailed as a political masterstroke. Surely it meant the Republican was well on his way to winning the Rust Belt (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) like he did in 2016 (ignoring the fact that he lost them all in 2020).

Pundits largely ignored that Trump, who is facing 91 charges from his four indictments, was clearly looking to divert attention from that and his refusal to debate against other GOP presidential candidates who, unlike him, can recall that Barack Obama isn’t still president.

Trump ended up giving a speech at a non-union plant in Macomb County (apparently the only place in Michigan he’ll step foot in) — a giant slap in the face to striking workers (which some national media were painfully slow to realize).

While Trump told workers he supported them and their “goal of fair wages and greater stability,” he argued that any deal “doesn’t make a damn bit of difference” because EVs will kill the domestic auto industry anyway.

And as usual, he made the event mostly about him, announcing weirdly in the third person, “They [the UAW] have to endorse Trump, because if they don’t, all they’re doing is committing suicide.”

It’s easy to mix in some populist rhetoric in between hurling barroom-style insults at your enemies, but what is Trump actually offering working-class voters? What did they really win during his four years in office? Is he truly on their side when the chips are down?

– Susan J. Demas

It’s no wonder Fain refused to meet with Trump, telling CNN: “I don’t think the man has any bit of care about what our workers stand for, what the working class stands for. He serves the billionaire class and that’s what’s wrong with this country.”

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden showed he really has been a lifelong union supporter by being perhaps the first sitting president in modern history to walk a picket line — and he let Fain take the lead at the event.

“You deserve what you’ve earned,” Biden told workers, “and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than what you’re getting paid now.”

Analysts weren’t nearly as sanguine on the way Biden was handling the labor dispute, as they unleashed a flood of takes on how the strike is Bad for Biden

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(part of the long-running genre of how anything — hurricanes, boffo job reports, the Detroit Lions being … good? — means the Democrat will surely lose next year).

In the end, the union stood strong for over 40 days and won the best deals in decades, with Fain vowing to organize non-union automakers like Honda, Toyota and Subaru next. 

Biden and Fain reunited this month at Stellantis’ idled Belvidere Assembly Plant in Illinois — which is set to reopen under the UAW agreement. The president made it clear that he and Fain view economic progress the same way.

“I don’t look at the economy through the eyes of Wall Street or Park Avenue.  I look at it through the eyes of the people I grew up with in Scranton, Pa., and Claymont, Del.,” Biden said. “My guess is that’s how Shawn looks at it, too — the people he grew up with in Kokomo, [Ind.].”  

Susan J. Demas: The UAW won the strike, so why doesn’t Donald Trump want to talk about it?
President Joe Biden addresses UAW members walking a picket line at the GM Willow Run Distribution Center, Tuesday, September 26, 2023, in Belleville, Michigan. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

That will, no doubt, be a key campaign message for Biden next year.

Meanwhile, the UAW deals include the long-sought-after “just transition” to EVs for workers, which renders much of Trump’s hyperbolic criticism moot. 

He’s been awfully quiet about the strike since his ego trip to Michigan a couple of months ago — he hasn’t bothered to cheer the contracts with big pay bumps, especially for newer workers who often took other jobs to make ends meet.

It’s easy to mix in some populist rhetoric in between hurling barroom-style insults at your enemies, but what is Trump actually offering working-class voters? What did they really win during his four years in office? Is he truly on their side when the chips are down?

Trump could end up prevailing in Michigan and other swing states anyway. But with workers winning record contracts by sticking together, they just might not feel they need to gamble on another four years of Trumpian turmoil.

Correction: This column originally listed the incorrect company targeted by the Sit-down Strike.

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