DETROIT (AP) — As his Republican rivals gather onstage in California for their second primary debate, former President Donald Trump will be in battleground Michigan on Wednesday night working to win over blue-collar voters in the midst of an autoworkers’ strike.
Trump’s trip comes a day after President Joe Biden became the first sitting president in U.S. history to walk a picket line as he joined United Auto Workers in Detroit. The union is pushing for higher wages, shorter work weeks and assurances from the country’s top automakers that new electric vehicle jobs will be unionized.
The dueling appearances reflect what will likely be a chief dynamic of the 2024 general election, which is increasingly looking like a rematch between Trump and Biden. Michigan is expected to be a critical battleground state as both candidates try to paint themselves as champions of the working class.
Trump is scheduled to deliver primetime remarks at Drake Enterprises, a non-unionized auto parts supplier in Clinton Township, about a half-hour outside Detroit. He’ll speak before a crowd of several hundred current and former UAW members, as well as members of plumbers and pipefitters unions.
Trump has tried to capitalize on the strike to drive a wedge between Biden and union workers, a constituency that helped pave the way for the ex-president’s surprise 2016 victory. Trump in that election won over voters in Democratic strongholds like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, fundamentally reshaping voting alliances as he railed against global trade deals and vowed to resurrect dying manufacturing towns.
But Biden won those states back in 2020 as he emphasized his working-class roots and commitment to organized labor. He often calls himself the ” most pro-union president” in U.S. history and argues the investments his administration is making in green energy and electric vehicle manufacturing will ensure the future of the industry unfolds in the U.S.
Trump, this time around, is seeking to capitalize on discontent over Biden’s handling of the economy amid persistent inflation. He has repeatedly warned Biden’s embrace of electric vehicles — a key component of his clean-energy agenda — will ultimately lead to lost jobs, amplifying the concerns of some autoworkers who worry that electric cars require fewer people to manufacture and that there is no guarantee factories that produce them will be unionized.
“Joe Biden’s draconian and indefensible Electric Vehicle mandate will annihilate the U.S. auto industry and cost countless thousands of autoworkers their jobs,” Trump railed in a statement after Biden’s Tuesday visit.
While Trump has cast himself as pro-worker, he has clashed repeatedly with union leadership and tried to drive a wedge between union members and their leaders. In a recent campaign video, he urged autoworkers not to pay union dues and claimed their leaders have “got some deals going for themselves.” “I WILL KEEP YOUR JOBS AND MAKE YOU RICH!!!” he has told them.
While the union has withheld its support for Biden after endorsing him in 2020, UAW President Shawn Fain appeared at Biden’s side during his visit Tuesday and remained deeply critical of Trump.
“I don’t think he cares about working-class people. I think he cares about the billionaire class, he cares about the corporate interests. I think he’s just trying to pander to people and say what they want to hear, and it’s a shame,” Fain said.
Union leaders know the transition to electric vehicles is coming, but the question of whether new battery manufacturing plants will be unionized is a major UAW concern in contract negotiations. They say solidifying the union’s role in the auto industry’s clean energy future will ensure higher wages and provide job security going forward.
Detroit automakers have announced 10 battery plants to be built in the U.S., all but one in joint ventures with South Korean battery makers. They say the union must negotiate with the joint venture companies about representing workers.
There’s disagreement in the auto industry over whether the shift to EVs will cost union jobs. Some executives say that because there are fewer moving parts, companies will need 30 percent to 40 percent fewer workers to assemble EVs. But others say EVs will require a comparable amount of labor.
The Trump campaign has vigorously defended his record as pro-worker, but union leaders say his first term was far from worker-friendly — citing unfavorable rulings from the nation’s top labor board and the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as unfulfilled promises of automotive jobs and the closure of a General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio.
Aides say Trump will use his speech to lambast Biden’s economic policies, arguing that middle- and working-class families have suffered under Biden’s presidency. He will also highlight Biden’s record supporting free trade deals, which Trump has blamed for shifting jobs overseas.
“Anyone who’s a working, middle-class voter in Michigan and all around the country is feeling the direct impacts of Biden’s terrible economic policies,” said Trump senior adviser Jason Miller.
Trump has not weighed on the union’s proposal, but aides insist its rank-and-file members “are in a much different place than their political leaders.”
Along the picket line, workers were split. Adrian Mitchell, who works at the GM parts warehouse that Biden visited, said he believes Biden would be better for the middle class than a second Trump term.
“He supports the people in regards to coming out here, showing solidarity with the UAW workers,” Mitchell said. “He’s always been for the middle class.”
Still, Mitchell said workers are worried that the transition from internal combustion vehicles to electric cars may cost them jobs.
“I think we’re all worried about that,” he said. “But I think eventually it’ll come together.”
But Matthew Coleman of Romulus, Michigan, who has worked at the parts warehouse for the last nine years, said he believes Trump would probably be a better president for the middle class, largely because he’s against the transition from internal combustion to electric vehicles.
“I don’t think it benefits the middle class,” he said. “We can hardly afford the cars that we make now. I think it’s going to cut a lot of jobs that we have right now.”
The UAW’s targeted strikes against the Big Three automakers — General Motors, Stellantis and Ford — began at midnight on Sept. 14 and have since expanded to 38 parts distribution centers in 20 states.
The union is asking for 36 percent raises in general pay over four years and has also demanded a 32-hour week with 40 hours of pay and a return of cost-of-living pay raises, among other benefits. It also wants to be allowed to represent workers at 10 electric vehicle battery factories, most of which are being built by joint ventures between automakers and South Korean battery makers. The union wants those plants to receive top UAW wages.
While Biden has not implemented an electric vehicle mandate, he has set a goal that half of all new vehicle sales be electric by 2030. His administration has also proposed stiff new automobile pollution limits that would require up to two-thirds of new vehicles sold in the U.S. to be electric by 2032, a nearly tenfold increase over current electric vehicle sales. That proposal is not final.
One of Trump’s Republican rivals, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, will also be in Detroit Wednesday. He’s set to hold a press conference to highlight Trump’s “false promises to blue collar and union workers in Michigan and across America.”