(Bloomberg) -- The visits by President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump to Detroit this week give both men a chance to appeal to blue-collar America as the strike by union autoworkers threatens the economy in a battleground state.
Biden, who calls himself the most pro-union president in history, travels to Wayne County on Tuesday to join striking UAW members on the picket line. Trump, the front-runner among Republicans in the 2024 presidential race, hosts an event in suburban Detroit on Wednesday with autoworkers and other union members.
The candidates are trying to show their support for laborers after the United Auto Workers expanded a strike Friday against Detroit’s Big Three automakers to 38 additional facilities, adding to the three plants it initially targeted on Sept. 15. In the strike’s second week, after economic losses estimated at $1.6 billion, the two sides still remain far apart on key issues such as pay, benefits and terms.
Trump’s advisers said he will argue that Biden’s support for electric-vehicle production will send jobs to China and that his trade policies, along with a jump in inflation, have devastated workers, while Biden will likely point to his pro-union stances and defend his green-energy agenda.
Workers on the picket lines Sunday at Ford Motor Co.’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne and Stellantis NV’s Mopar Parts Distribution Center in Center Line, and union members at other sites last week, said they welcomed the candidates if they spur a favorable settlement.
Jacob Bishop, a 23-year-old employee for Stellantis, said at a “practice picket” for workers who haven’t yet walked out that he didn’t like how Biden imposed a deal last year between freight railroads and labor to avert a strike. He wants promises automakers won’t move EV jobs to places that are less supportive of unions and safety protections.
“It’s a matter of when at this point, and we all know that,” Bishop said of the transition to EVs. “We want to make sure that in that transition, the companies don’t try and use that as a little bit of a scapegoat to try and transition their relatively good-paying union jobs.”
Trump’s visit is intended to distract from this year’s second GOP presidential debate, which he’s skipping. His rivals for the nomination will be on the stage in California the same time he’s speaking in Michigan.
Michigan voters — and the union workers among them — are expected to be critical in the 2024 race for president based on prior elections: Biden won 62% of Michigan’s union household vote in 2020, topping Trump’s 37%, and won the state by more than 154,000 votes. But in 2016, Trump won the state by just 10,704 votes, with exit polls showing he got 40% of the union vote, compared with 53% for Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Porn, the president of Michigan polling company EPIC·MRA, said Biden’s support among union members has fallen as Trump’s gained in recent months. Trump led Biden 46% to 43% among union members in an August survey, after Biden led Trump 51% to 42% in June.
Porn attributes that shift to Trump’s comments criticizing electric vehicles and Biden’s support for them as part of his clean-energy agenda. Workers in plants geared toward internal combustion engines are hearing from Trump that all EVs will be built in China and the UAW will be “wiped out.” That claim is extreme, and Biden can ease workers’ concerns, Porn said.
“If he can address that, he should be able to get those voters back,” Porn said. “But right now, the only message they’re hearing about electric vehicles is addressing their fear, and trying to play on their fears about union members losing their jobs in the future.”
UAW President Shawn Fain has warned Biden that Trump’s attacks have hit a nerve, telling Bloomberg News last month that “our workers’ experience right now with this EV transition is not a good thing” and “when somebody else comes along and says, ‘Get ready to watch your jobs disappear,’ that is gonna resonate.”
Read more: What’s at Stake as US Autoworkers’ Strike Drags On: QuickTake
Trump, scheduled to speak Wednesday night at Drake Enterprises, a suburban Detroit auto-parts manufacturer, will say that Biden has been on the wrong side of issues that have hurt workers and the middle class for three decades, dating back to support for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, adviser Jason Miller said.
Democrats say Trump’s presidency was bad for workers by prioritizing tax breaks for corporations, appointing members to the National Labor Relations Board who were hostile to unions and failing to keep promises to protect union jobs and assembly plants.
Trump is trying to recreate his 2016 appeal to blue-collar workers in states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania and drive a wedge between a UAW leadership that historically has backed Democrats and rank-and-file members who are more likely to be Republican, according to Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan GOP.
But Fain enjoys overwhelming support among striking workers of all political persuasions, and Trump won’t divide the leadership and membership, Nick Kottalis, chairman of UAW Local 600’s Dearborn Truck Plant unit, said outside the Local 900 hall in Wayne on Sunday where striking workers chanted, “No justice, no peace.”
Marick Masters, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who studies auto unions, said the visits by Biden and Trump could help turn out their supporters but won’t likely shift many union votes in Michigan in 2024 unless the economy gets appreciably worse.
“If you want to call it a dog-and-pony-show, they’re covering the bases,” said Ted Alton, 65, a 37-year Ford worker who voted for Trump in 2020 but would like other choices besides Trump and Biden in 2024.
A long-term strike by all UAW members at the three automakers would cause more than 300,000 job losses in Michigan, according to an analysis by the University of Michigan Department of Economics. Researchers didn’t model the more limited strike approach the UAW is taking, but said the effects are already being felt and will grow as the strike expands.
Striking workers on the picket lines Sunday said they need higher pay and better benefits to keep up with inflation.
Robert Schuch, 47, a team leader at the Stellantis Center Line Packaging parts plant, said he’s earning only $2.53 an hour more than he did in 2008, and he and his wife have to work overtime to make ends meet.
“Now I work as many hours as I can,” Schuch said before heading to the Local 1248 hall to register for strike benefits. “I want to be able to start not having to do overtime to make it.”
--With assistance from Gabrielle Coppola and Josh Eidelson.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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