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The Smart Politics Behind Biden's UAW Visit
Picking a fight with Trump over workers' rights is a good way to shift the economic debate in Biden's favor
Later today, President Joe Biden will make history by becoming the first-ever President to join striking workers. This is a big deal on every level. It’s an important moment in the history of the fight for workers' rights and the labor movement’s relationship with the Democratic Party. None of that should get lost in the obvious and unavoidable context of the President’s visit to Michigan.
Donald Trump will be in the state for a rally with union workers the next night, attempting to counterprogram that evening’s Republican debate.
The narrative of the Biden and Trump visits to Michigan have been very telling. Trump’s visit is being treated as a masterstroke and “a sign that the ex-president had a more sophisticated campaign than in previous cycles — and that Biden’s operation needs to step it up.”
Biden’s visit, on the other hand, is being greeted with trepidation and concern — even from Democrats. Are unions unpopular? Is the President too reactive? Could this visit prolong the strike?
There are no risk-free endeavors in politics, but President Biden is playing a strong political hand with this visit.
1. Americans Support the UAW Strike
There is nothing politically dangerous about siding with the UAW. The American people support the UAW workers in their strike. According a Reuters poll:
58% of Americans support the first-ever simultaneous strike by the United Auto Workers union against Ford Motor (F.N), General Motors (GM.N) and Chrysler parent Stellantis (STLAM.MI) to win better pay and benefits, while 32% oppose the action and 10% were unsure.
2. Unions Are Still Popular
If you turn on Fox News or listen to Republican politicians talk (these are basically the same thing), you will hear non-stop demonization of unions — calling them thugs and suggesting that they are hurting the economy and the U.S. education system. It would be easy to assume (as some Dems do) that our party’s close association with labor unions is a political vulnerability. Not only are labor unions popular, they are more popular than they have been in decades. Gallup has been tracking labor union approval for 80 years. In 2022, labor unions had a 71% approval rating — the highest it's been since the 1960s. That number dropped to 67% this year — still very high.
Americans support unions. They see unions as key to a fairer economy that benefits working and middle class Americans. A Navigator Research poll found that only one in five Americans thinks the decline in union membership has had a positive impact on the country and 71% think that increasing union membership would lead to higher wages for working people.
From the UAW strike, to writers and actors striking in Hollywood, to the efforts to unionize Starbucks, UPS and other major industries, the labor movement is having a resurgence. Biden is smart to find a high profile moment to demonstrate his support for unions.
3. This Is the Right Fight to Pick
The cause of these workers fighting for better wages and benefits is a righteous one. Biden would be right to go to the strike even if there was little political benefit. By choosing to go to Michigan the day before Trump arrives for his cynical stunt, the President is engineering a moment of conflict on a politically advantageous topic.
Polling clarifies that Trump has an advantage on Biden over economic issues. I know this seems absurd on its face, but thanks to the Celebrity Apprentice, tens of millions of Americans think of Trump as a hugely successful businessperson. In focus groups, you frequently hear very fond (rose-colored) memories of the pre-pandemic economy during Trump’s Presidency. If history is a guide, Biden must overcome that advantage to be reelected. No one has won the Presidency in the modern era without winning on the economy in the exit polls.
Inflation remains the central economic issue for nearly every voter. In most polls, north of 90% of respondents cite inflation as a top concern. During the campaign, Biden will need to prove to voters that he is working to bring down costs. Making the economic debate about who is going to raise wages moves the battle to more friendly territory. Democrats are seen as better advocates for workers and middle class Americans, while Republicans are overwhelmingly seen as too friendly to corporations.
Trump’s vulnerabilities are showing. His only major legislative accomplishment was a massive tax cut for corporations that helped encourage the offshoring of American jobs. Trump opposes raising the minimum wage and rejected the concept of a minimum wage. He changed the rules for who was eligible for overtime pay, costing eight million workers more than $1 billion in wages.
And here is Trump trashing unions in 2008:
Who will fight for American workers? That is a fight that Biden can and should win. The fact that the President is headed to Michigan today is evidence that it's a fight he relishes.