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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Trump tries to court blue-collar workers at a nonunion factory

Former President Donald Trump greets his supporters at a campaign event in Maquoketa, Iowa on Sept. 20, 2023.

By Trip Gabriel

Seeking more of the voters who paved his way to the White House in 2016, former President Donald Trump rallied at a Michigan auto parts factory on Wednesday night, vying for the support of blue-collar workers one day after President Joe Biden appeared on a picket line with striking United Automobile Workers.

Biden on Tuesday affirmed his support for UAW strikers’ demands for a 40% pay raise. In his appearance at a nonunion factory Wednesday, Trump repeatedly asked for the endorsement of the UAW president, Shawn Fain — calling him “Shawn” — but did not back any of the union’s contract demands.

“Your head man, Shawn, he’s a good man,” Trump told the crowd, though it was unclear if there were more than a handful of UAW members present. “But he’s got to endorse Trump.”

Fain, who appeared with Biden during his visit to the picket line, has withheld the union’s endorsement, saying it must be earned. But Fain has been clear that the UAW would never support Trump, who pursued many anti-union policies in office.

At the same time, Trump was seeking to drive a wedge between rank-and-file workers and their leaders over the issue of electric vehicles, which he repeatedly attacked as an existential threat to American car companies and workers. He claimed that a clean-air proposal by the administration that calls for 2 out of 3 new cars sold to be electric by 2032 would decimate Detroit.

“I will not allow, under any circumstances, the American auto industry to die,” Trump said. “I want it to thrive.”

“Get your union leaders to endorse me, and I’ll take care of the rest,” Trump said.

The UAW, which argues that the transition to electric vehicles is inevitable and that it is driven by market forces, seeks to ensure that zero-emission vehicles are made by workers in the United States earning union wages.

Coming at the same time that other Republican primary candidates were in California debating on national television, Trump’s appearance outside Detroit sent the message that he had all but moved on from his lower-polling rivals and was focused on the potential for a rematch with Biden in 2024.

Trump, whose polling lead over his closest rivals has grown to around 40 points, twisted the knife by suggesting that everyone else was now running to work for him in a second Trump administration. He called his rivals “job candidates.”

“They’ll do anything,” he said. “Secretary of something, they even say VP, does anybody see any VP in the group? I don’t think so.”

Trump spoke at Drake Enterprises in Clinton Township, north of Detroit. The company’s 150 employees make gearshift levers for heavy-duty trucks, as well as components that go into cars made by General Motors and Ford. Its president, Nathan Stemple, said it was a nonunion shop.

Before the former president took the stage, a few hundred people were seated on the floor of the factory, and at least one man in a red UAW T-shirt said he was a union member and voiced support for the strike. Two people holding “Union Members for Trump” signs said they were not union members. The Trump campaign made no effort to recruit attendees through UAW locals, according to the union.

Hours after appearing with Biden on a picket line Tuesday outside a GM facility in Belleville, Michigan, Fain told CNN: “I find a pathetic irony that the former president is going to hold a rally for union members at a nonunion business.”

Fain denounced Trump’s lack of support during a strike against GM in 2019, when Trump was in office, and said he had no plans to meet with the former president during his visit.

Trump has long sought to separate rank-and-file union members from union leaders, who largely endorse Democrats. He has had notable success: He won about 4 in 10 votes from union households in 2020, according to exit polls.

On Tuesday, as Biden became the first president in modern times to join a picket line, Trump issued a statement predicting that “in three years there will be no autoworker jobs” if Biden’s policies prevail. He hammered that same message in his address Wednesday, accusing Biden of “economic treason.”

The Biden campaign responded by saying that Trump’s record in office showed he was far more interested in making billionaires richer than in helping the middle class.

“Donald Trump’s low-energy, incoherent ‘speech’ at a nonunion factory in Michigan was a pathetic, recycled attempt to feign support for working Americans,” Kevin Munoz, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, said in a statement. “Americans have seen him try this before and they aren’t buying it. They know who Donald Trump really is: a billionaire charlatan running on empty words, broken promises and lost jobs.”

Marick Masters, a professor of business with a focus on labor issues at Wayne State University in Detroit, said the economic uncertainty around the transition to electric vehicles worried many autoworkers, providing Trump with a political opening.

“There’s a big question about how successful these companies are going to be in the transition to electric vehicles,” he said. “Trump’s message resonates, and it cuts across a broad swath of workers.”

Stemple, Drake’s president, said a too-rapid switch to electric vehicles would decimate his family company. He noted that electric vehicles did not require gearshift levers, one of his main products. “A lot of shops like us wouldn’t survive that transition if it happened rapidly,” he said.

Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a group that seeks common ground between unions and environmentalists, said Trump’s claim that the EV transition would drive American jobs to China “is almost exactly backwards.” In August, the administration said it would invest up to $12 billion to help automakers convert factories to electric and hybrid car production.

“What the Biden administration is trying to do is actually bring jobs back from China by investing in revitalizing American auto manufacturing,” Walsh said.

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