'Just shut your mouth:' Populist Republicans back UAW workers' demands while slamming union leadership

From left: Sen. JD Vance of Ohio, UAW President Shawn Fain, and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri.
From left: Sen. JD Vance of Ohio, UAW President Shawn Fain, and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri.Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images; Bill Pugliano/Getty Images; Ken Cedeno/Getty Images
  • Hawley and Vance support striking auto workers, but they're not on the same page as union leadership.

  • It's a sign of the challenges for them in re-aligning the GOP toward the working class.

  • Both senators also don't support the PRO Act, the labor movement's top legislative priority.

As strikes at auto manufacturing plants continue across the country, some populist-minded Republicans are breaking from their party's long-standing orthodoxies and backing the United Auto Workers' demands.

But those same Republicans remain politically at odds with the union's pugnacious leadership, underscoring deeper frustrations they have with actually-existing organized labor that are likely to complicate any potential populist re-alignment in the near future.

"There's a huge amount of tension between the president of UAW's political posture, and what's actually in the best interest of his workers," said Sen. JD Vance of Ohio.

Vance, along with Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, argues that the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) spurred by the Biden administration is making it harder for auto workers to bargain and will lead to the further off-shoring of their jobs to China.

Both men represent states where the first wave of strikes began on September 15, and Hawley visited striking workers in Wentzville, Missouri on Monday.

They also contend that rank-and-file auto workers are actually skeptical of Biden's environmental initiatives, but that UAW President Shawn Fain has been unwilling to make those arguments amid the strike due to organized labor's longstanding ties to Democrats.

"They've got to play the hand that's dealt them," said Hawley. "They've got to work with the Biden administration, and they're the ones who are responsible for all of this."

Last week, Fain even slammed Donald Trump as part of the "billionaire class" following the news that the former president would address union workers in Michigan this week.

"The whole problem that we have is a guy like Shawn Fain blasting Donald Trump," said Vance. "At the very least, just shut your mouth, and take the support from wherever you can get it."

By contrast, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio — a Democrat with a long relationship with organized labor — offered a dim view of Vance and Hawley's argument.

"They're going to use anything to divide, I understand that. Electric vehicles, that's the future," said Brown.  "If the other side keeps doing this sort of faux-populist 'we're for workers,' and these electric cars go overseas, then we've lost everything."

A spokesman for the UAW did not respond to Insider's request for comment.

The complicated effect of electric vehicles

After a full summer of bargaining between the UAW and Detroit's Ford, GM, and Stellantis, Fain said that none of the companies came close enough to a deal to avoid a strike. For the first time in the UAW's history, Fain called upon workers at all three companies to go on strike at targeted assembly plants. That strike was expanded to all parts distribution centers for GM and Stellantis last week.

Several Democrats have visited picket lines to rally with workers, and Biden is set to visit the picket line in Detroit on Tuesday — one day before Trump's Michigan event.

Fain has been generally supportive of electric vehicles for their environmental benefits, declaring that anyone who doesn't believe in climate change "isn't paying attention."

But the union leader takes a hard line on who will be building those EVs.

He has warned repeatedly that labor is being left behind in the transition to EVs, and in August of this year called upon the Biden administration to "ensure a just transition for the auto workers in this country."

Fain has also withheld support for Biden's re-election campaign, telling his members as recently as this past spring that he would like to see the Democrat show more support for workers in his pro-EV policies.

"If the government is going to funnel billions in taxpayer money to these companies, the workers must be compensated with top wages and benefits," Fain wrote in a May letter to members.

Some workers who spoke with Insider on the picket line in Michigan last week suggested that EVs weren't top of mind for them, including Matt Wegener, who has been at Ford's Michigan Assembly for more than 20 years.

"The EV factories in the future will still have humans in them," Wegener said. "Eventually, plants like mine will transition to EVs, and I trust our union to negotiate that we will still do that work."

More important to Wegener, and other auto workers Insider spoke with, is that the UAW makes key wins now on pay and benefits so that when EVs become more prevalent, they are more protected.

"The first thing in our minds is that we deserve a raise, bottom line," said Charmonique Demings, an 11-year assembly line worker at Ford's Michigan Assembly.

Meanwhile, Trump — also critical of electric vehicles — has cast himself as an ally to the striking workers. But his record is more complicated.

The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, negotiated by Trump, was geared towards incentivizing more automotive production in the US. Trump also levied trade tariffs to discourage car companies from relying upon imports. But both of these actions did not seem to have much impact on preserving jobs during the 2019 labor talks in Detroit — GM still closed several factories that year following a 40-day strike.

More broadly, Trump's appointees at both the National Labor Relations Board and the Supreme Court took steps that weakened workers' ability to organize.

Yet polling suggests that Trump's stock could be on the rise among these workers. According to Bloomberg, Trump led Biden among Michigan union members by a 46% to 43% margin in August, down from a 51-42% lead for Biden in June, before Detroit labor talks began.

In general, EVs can be tough on auto manufacturing workers. Battery-powered cars are less complex than their internal-combustion engine counterparts and require up to 30% fewer workers to assemble, industry analysts have said.

Hawley and Vance have also pointed out that China currently dominates the EV battery supply chain, helping the country lead global EV sales without ever stepping foot in the US.

Biden has set an ambitious target for the American automotive industry, calling for half of all new vehicles sold in the US to be zero-emission by 2030. So far, the only company that has figured out how to squeeze consistent profits out of electric cars is Tesla, which does not use more union labor.

The UAW, one of America's oldest and most well-known unions, is coming off a tough decade in which membership plummeted and a years-long criminal probe sent several prominent leaders to prison. The result has been waning influence in the industry it once dominated, with high-profile organizing failures at Volkswagen and Tesla.

The union is now aiming to rebuild its reputation and influence in automotive labor and the labor movement writ large.

Fain has adopted broad anti-billionaire rhetoric that speaks to the themes of the last three years of a newly emboldened labor movement, and that ideology has spread to the picket line, where workers say they're fighting for a better future for the working class.

'How to divide up a shrinking pie'

Vance and Hawley's response to the UAW strike also has implications for the future of the Republican Party's relationship with labor.

"The idea that this is faux-populism actually really frustrates me," said Vance.

"I don't want them to just have higher wages next year, I want them to have a job five years from now," Vance continued. "They're gonna go make demands on GM and Ford, and Ford is gonna say, 'go fuck yourself,' because all your jobs are in China, we don't need you guys."

But Brown argued that the duo's refusal to support the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a Democratic-backed bill designed to strengthen workers' ability to form unions, suggested a lack of commitment to organized labor.

"If they were pro-labor, they'd support the Protecting the Right to Organize Act," said Brown. "It's labor's number one priority."

Vance said he did not support the bill because it would empower the "current union leadership model" that's "completely in bed with the Democratic Party." He instead gestured towards proposals from the conservative group American Compass, which include ideas like workers' councils, sectoral bargaining, and de-prioritizing social justice advocacy by union leadership.

"There are a lot of different approaches that we've looked at that we think might actually give workers more bargaining power in the economy, but also would make their leadership a little bit more responsive to them politically," said Vance.

And Hawley, who previously supported right-to-work legislation in Missouri and once called for an "end to union-backed candidates" in his party, said that the PRO Act would "hurt workers more than it helps" and that preventing off-shoring was more important than strengthening the right to unionize.

"If you want to talk about how to divide up a shrinking pie, I suppose we can do that," said Hawley. "But why don't we think about how we get more pie for labor in this country?"

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