In a bid to recapture the favor of blue-collar rust belt voters, Donald Trump traveled to Michigan on Wednesday to address a crowd of autoworkers at a rally near Detroit. The former president billed his prime-time speech as a gesture of solidarity with striking autoworkers.
The event doubled as a distraction from the night’s Republican primary debate, where other candidates discussed how they would help striking autoworkers.
On two very different stages, Trump and the seven other Republicans faced the same challenge. American support for labor unions is at a 57-year-high, and union members – especially the thousands of autoworkers currently on strike – are a coveted voting bloc that could help secure the White House in 2024.
Except there’s one problem: the Republican party doesn’t like unions.
In the decades since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, GOP lawmakers championed “right to work” laws designed to limit union membership. In 2021, congressional Republicans overwhelmingly voted against a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions.
Some candidates have already antagonized unions, with Senator Tim Scott last week suggesting that the striking autoworkers ought to be fired.
But the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike is growing. This week, Biden became the first sitting president to join the picket line, shifting the GOP’s calculus of which Republican is most likely to win the general election.
The eight Republican candidates attempted to reconcile GOP policy and politics on Wednesday, with uneven results.
Here’s where each Republican candidate stands on labor and unions.
In a move that UAW president Shawn Fain described as “a pathetic irony”, Trump’s rally for striking workers was hosted at a nonunion auto plant in Macomb county.
Still, some voters and political experts in the region praised Trump’s decision to skip the second primary debate in favor of a Michigan rally.
Chris Jackowiak, an Illinois political strategist at a “center-right” campaign consultant group called Cor Strategies, said the move helped distinguish Trump from the remaining slate of GOP candidates.
“It’s a real contrast to see Donald Trump speaking to union workers in Detroit when everybody else is at Ronald union-buster Reagan’s presidential library in California,” Jackowiak told the Guardian.
In Wednesday’s speech, the former president tapped the same talking points that propelled him to the White House in 2016. He pointed to electric vehicles – not auto industry CEOs – as the real enemy of striking workers.
“On day one, I will terminate Joe Biden’s electric vehicle mandate, and I will cancel every job-killing regulation that is crushing American autoworkers,” Trump said Wednesday.
The speech repeated many of the sentiments expressed by big three executives earlier this month. After the strike’s launch, Ford CEO Jim Farley told the New York Times that worker demands for increased wages would “force Ford to scrap its investment in electric vehicles”.
The UAW argues that auto companies do not have to choose between electric vehicles and workers rights.
Trump also raised the specter of foreign outsourcing, another tactic that helped him court rust belt voters in 2016. On Wednesday, the former president said electric vehicles “would be manufactured in foreign lands that you couldn’t care less about”.
It was a compelling warning for the 2016 electorate, yet some political experts in the midwest wonder if the message will translate to the 2024 race, especially as Biden doubles down on his claim to be “the most pro-union president”.
Jackowiak said Trump’s 2016 appeal to midwest voters, including union members, was in part thanks to his careful self-branding as a political outsider that could fix Washington corruption for working-class families.
That pro-worker label that Trump ascribed himself might be harder to secure now, after four years in the White House.
“He’s always going to be the anti-establishment figure, but now he went from someone who was viciously opposed to the Republican party to somebody who is the de facto leader of the Republican party,” Jackowiak said.
Trump’s populist veneer was damaged, in part, by the legacy of his presidency. At a 2017 rally in Youngstown, Ohio, Trump pledged to protect the manufacturing jobs at the nearby General Motors auto plant in Lordstown.
Those jobs have since vanished. In late 2018, General Motors abruptly announced it would cut roughly 14,000 jobs and idle five factories in North America, including the Lordstown location, which permanently closed the following year.
“He told people, ‘Don’t move, don’t sell your home, I’m going to save this plant,’” said Michael Traugott, a political science professor at the University of Michigan.
“Union folks are not going to forget that he makes promises and doesn’t deliver.”
The South Carolina senator is among the most vocal Republican critics of the UAW strike.
“They want more benefits, working fewer hours. That is simply not going to stand,” Scott said on Wednesday’s debate stage.
In a bizarre segue, Scott attempted to switch topics from the autoworkers’ strike to regulation of the US-Mexico border.
Scott has previously blasted teachers’ unions. During the first presidential debate in August, Scott said: “The only way we change education in this nation is to break the backs of the teachers’ unions.”
When Los Angeles teachers went on strike earlier this year, Scott blamed teachers’ unions. In a March statement about the California strike, the senator said teachers’ unions are “dodging accountability, denying parental rights and failing to meet the academic standards America’s students deserve”.
On Wednesday night, Ramaswamy attempted to criticize the UAW without alienating large swaths of union voters.
“I don’t have a lot of patience for union bosses,” he said. “I do have a lot of sympathy for the workers, however.”
Opposition to unions appears to be a centerpiece of Ramaswamy’s campaign.
The presidential hopeful echoed Scott’s opposition to teachers’ unions during the first primary debate in August. He pledged to end teachers’ unions “at the local level”.
In an April campaign video, Ramaswamy said the US should abolish both teachers’ unions and the Department of Education.
On Wednesday the former vice-president said he would “stand with workers all across America”, through right-to-work laws, an anti-union policy that groups like the UAW resoundingly opposes.
As governor of Indiana, Pence defended the state’s right-to-work laws from legal challenge by union leaders.
Pence also signed a law that blocked local governments from raising worker benefits – like the minimum wage and sick leave – above the federal minimum.
As a member of Congress, Pence voted against a bill that would have made it harder for employers to retaliate against unionized workers.
The former South Carolina governor proudly calls herself “a union buster”.
“When you have the most pro-union president and he touts that he is emboldening the unions, this is what you get,” she told Fox News last week. “The union is asking for a 40% raise, the companies have come back with a 20% raise – I think any of the taxpayers would love to have a 20% raise and think that’s great.”
Yet her embrace of the “union buster” moniker appeared to vanish on the debate stage on Wednesday. Instead of criticizing unions, Haley said the strike happened because of Biden’s mismanagement of the economy.
“We are paying higher gas prices, higher grocery prices,” she said. “Let’s focus on what it takes to get more cash in the pockets of workers.”
Haley suggested that workers would not be striking if inflation hadn’t put a strain on American families.
In a 2012 speech as governor of South Carolina, Haley pledged to “make the unions understand full well that they are not needed, not wanted and not welcome in the state of South Carolina”.
In 2015, she fought to stop workers at the state’s Boeing plant from unionizing.
The Florida governor hesitated to comment on the UAW strike, both on and off the debate stage.
DeSantis criticized the Biden administration’s push for electric vehicles in an interview with an Iowa television news station last week.
In May, DeSantis signed a bill into law that aims to weaken the teachers’ unions and other public-employee unions.
In 2017, he joined a coalition of House Republicans who introduced a federal right-to-work bill, which would have starved already shrinking US unions of funding.
The former New Jersey governor and short-lived Trump confidant remained quiet during the debate’s discussion of unions.
Like DeSantis, Christie has been hesitant to weigh in on the UAW strike.
But Christie shares his fellow Republican candidates’ disdain for teachers’ unions. During the 2016 presidential election, he compared the New Jersey teachers’ union to the mafia.
He made headlines in 2015 after suggesting that the federal teachers’ union should be “punched in the face”.
As governor of New Jersey, Christie gutted the state pension system for public employees, including teachers.
Burgum’s fledgling campaign has struggled to retain relevance in recent months, and Wednesday’s debate was no exception.
After Fox News moderators prepared to move on from the topic of the UAW strike, the former North Dakota governor chimed in with a more muted version of his fellow Republicans’ statements.
“The reason why people are striking in Detroit is because of Joe Biden’s interference with capital markets,” he said.
He criticized the Biden administration’s support of electric vehicle manufacturing, and alluded to an existential threat from China.
“This strike is at Joe Biden’s feet.”
On the campaign trail, Burgum has not shared his view on unions.