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ANALYSIS

UAW strikes splits GOP presidential field, the latest sign of a changing political party

UAW members Dan Schlieman, with flag, and Brad Geer worked the picket line during a strike on Sept. 19 at the Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex where Jeeps are made in Toledo, Ohio.Jeremy Wadsworth/Associated Press

When United Auto Workers began a targeted strike against all of the country’s biggest three automakers, exposing the divisions between workers and the management of these companies, it also illuminated a growing political realignment inside of a Republican party increasingly attracted to populist themes.

As the picket lines formed, the 2024 GOP presidential field began to take sides — some along the familiar anti-union path, but others saw a political benefit in embracing the plight of the striking workers.

“The union is asking for a 40 percent raise; the companies have come back with a 20 percent raise,” former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said on Fox News. “I think any of the taxpayers would love to have a 20 percent raise and think that’s great.”

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When South Carolina Senator Tim Scott was asked for his take on the strike during a campaign stop in Iowa, Scott recalled that he is still with the party of Ronald Reagan, who famously fired striking air traffic controllers.

“You strike, you’re fired! Simple concept to me,” said Scott.

Trump saw a chance to divide the Democrats on the issue. For weeks before the strike took place, Trump was the only one of the Republican candidates even talking about the issue.

“I’m on the side of making our country great,” Trump said NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “The autoworkers are being sold down the river by their leadership, and their leadership should endorse Trump.”

Instead of attending the debate next week, Trump is planning to address UAW workers in person in a show of support. And with the expansion of the strike to include more plants on Friday, the issue is virtually guaranteed to come up at the Sept. 27 debate in Simi Valley, Calif., prompting those candidates who haven’t weighed in to lay down their markers.

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Union leaders initially called for 40 percent increase in wages over four years to match the salary increases by roughly the same amount for executives at the car companies. In addition, the union has called for health care and pensions for workers as well as a shorter work week. The union and all three automakers arrived at a negotiating impasse late last week.

Other candidates have been careful to not offend the striking workers even as they make other points.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, for example, told The Boston Globe’s editorial board on Tuesday that, “I think that the folks of UAW need to be paid a wage that represents their skill and expertise and how hard they work. And I don’t think that that’s what they’re being paid now.”

However, Christie said he felt the union leaders made a mistake in asking for 40 hours worth of wages for just 32 hours of work, but postulated that the ask was a negotiating tactic.

On the campaign trail, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis demurred from a fuller comment because he said he needed to learn more about the parameters of the strike, but he was careful to not attack those who walked off the job in protest. Instead, he took a general broadside against President Biden saying the conditions of the strike were there because of the administration’s push to electric cars.

That this issue is even being debated inside the Republican party is interesting in itself. It is a sharp turn from just a decade ago when Republican orthodoxy was to simply stand with the company management.

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Like many things, Trumpism has made things more complicated.

In 2016, Trump won a larger share of the vote from union households than any Republican since Reagan. Both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden won union households overall against Trump.

But unions are not all the same. Public sector unions, like teachers unions and government employee unions, remain staunchly in the Democratic Party’s camp. Private sector unions, particularly in the trades like carpenters are where Republicans have made the most inroads.

This debate matters beyond just the implications for the Republican Party. Economists have said America is in a “union boom” following momentum from the efforts to organize at Amazon warehouses, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and among gig workers. A Gallup poll in late August found that 71 percent of Americans support unions, the highest number since the firm began polling the question in 1965.

And whichever Republican does get the nomination will have to face off against Biden, who has long branded himself as “Union Joe,” because of his close ties to unions.

In other words, what happens on the picket line in the coming days could determine what happens in the polling line a year from now.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.