As their workers remain on strike, the Big Three U.S. automakers can’t defend raising their multimillion dollar salaries by a higher percentage than offered to hourly workers. GM’s Mary Barra visibly squirmed when asked by a CNN correspondent how she could justify refusing the union’s demand for a 40 percent increase in wages over four years when the nearly $29 million dollar package she took home last year included a 34 percent increase since 2019.
Meanwhile, workers have been receiving 6 percent annual raises while the car companies have been making record profits. The disparity between the executive suite and the frontline workers is forcing a new Trumpian breed of populist Republicans to decide whose side they’re on—now that they’re the party that claims to represent the working class.
Mindful that his party has moved to the populist right where workers are heralded—and corporations derided as “woke” and elitist—Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) is among those dipping a toe in the fight on the side of the workers.
“With this moment, the [United Auto Workers] leadership has an opportunity they cannot let slip through their grasp,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Toledo Blade urging the UAW to “use their leverage and force the President to stop subsidizing an industry that benefits Communist China more than it does American workers.”
Republicans who might otherwise reflexively side with corporate interests are taking another look and finding political gold in siding with strikers over the auto industry’s transition from the gas-powered engine to all electric vehicles. “What do you expect would happen when you push policies that will kill off people’s jobs?” Rep. Lisa McClain (R-MI) said. “Putting climate change policies over people is absolutely ridiculous, and we cannot stand for it.”
The issue of how far to go in expressing support for union workers divides Republicans, and will likely come to a head at next week’s Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) previewed his position on how to handle striking workers, saying at a campaign event this week that President Reagan “gave us a great example” when he fired striking federal air traffic controllers in 1981.
Former President Donald Trump—the frontrunner by miles—is once again skipping the debate, and is expected instead to visit Michigan and meet with union workers. Trump’s appeal to blue collar workers is central to his political strength. While he can’t claim any policies that directly benefit this demographic, many remain convinced by his insistence that he is fighting for them—and against elite state corruption—as he battles multiple indictments for obstruction and conspiracy to overturn an election.
The standoff with the UAW over wages shines a light on the federal minimum wage which hasn’t been raised since Ted Kennedy was in the Senate to champion it. It’s currently $7.25 an hour, which is ridiculous. That’s no more than pocket change in today’s economy, and some GOP lawmakers are waking up to this new reality where their constituents are on the picket line and not in the corporate suites.
GOP Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas are sponsoring The Higher Wages for American Workers Act of 2023, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $11 an hour over four years with further boosts for inflation. One catch, companies must agree to use a federal program (E-verify) to weed out any illegal immigrants, who would not qualify for the higher wages.
"American workers today compete against millions of illegal immigrants for too few jobs with wages that are too low—that’s unfair," Cotton said in a statement this week. "Ending the black market for illegal labor will open up jobs for Americans. Raising the minimum wage will allow Americans filling those jobs to better support their families."
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) goes further, embracing the $15 an hour minimum wage that Democrats support, but calling to limit it to employees of corporations that earn at least a billion a year.
David Madland, a senior advisor to the American Worker Project at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, told The Daily Beast that there’s been a noticeable change in tone toward unions on the part of some Republicans. When Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz testified earlier this year before the Senate Health Committee chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), most of the Republicans went to great pains to say they support unions, while at the same time apologizing to Schultz for making him defend his company’s anti-union practices.
“At least some Republicans are now more aware they represent a fair amount of union workers, and at least they’re watching their tongues,” says Madland, “but their policies have not kept up.” He notes that not a single Republican senator has endorsed the Protect the Right to organize Act, which strengthens federal protections for unions.
“The UAW is alone among major unions to withhold its endorsement of Biden, making this strike a litmus test,” says Bill Galston, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program. Biden prides himself as being the most pro-union president since FDR, often saying that unions built the middle class.
But rank and file workers don’t trust Biden to keep his commitment to them, while he is also pursuing an ambitious green agenda to build electrical vehicles with fewer workers.
There has been a realignment of working class voters away from the Democrats, beginning in 1968 for reasons having little to do with economics and everything to do with the rise of a counterculture and fights over patriotism around the Vietnam War.
Analysts still puzzle over why the working class votes Republican when the GOP isn’t delivering for them on policies. What’s the Matter with Kansas? became the iconic book title that examined this enduring dichotomy.
As workers fell on hard times in the eighties and nineties and beyond, and blamed it on free trade, globalization, and immigration, Trump arrived on the scene with an insurgency that reflected the raw emotions of a segment of the population that feels mistreated and misunderstood.
Trump may not make it back to the Oval Office, but the younger generation of populists in his party are beginning to respond to the grievances that he tapped into. Armed with their elite degrees, they relish taking on corporations they see as sympathetic to Democrats on cultural issues. And while they are far from being openly pro-union, they are at least giving lip service to the workers whose votes they’re counting on.