In 2010, for example, a Pew Center for the People and Press survey found union favorability was at 41 percent. According to that poll, the decline was widespread and seen across every demographic.
However, in today’s economy with more jobs available than people in positions, approval ratings for labor unions are at their highest point since 1965. It’s an employees’ market and workers are using that to their advantage.
Teachers unions, UPS workers, airline employees, writers, actors, you name it…the laborers are taking their power back. And the 2024 presidential election campaigns have rightfully taken notice.
The United Auto Workers (UAW) strike is ground zero for what could be a sea change in union support, as the first sitting president in the modern era joined the picket line in Wayne County, Michigan, on Tuesday.
President Joe Biden has a long history of union support. The moniker “union Joe” is drawn from Biden’s fiery speeches for organized labor, and his elevation of workers’ rights and fair wages. But that vocal support may run into conflict, as auto workers view Biden’s policy push for electric vehicles (EV) as a job killer that will quickly send American jobs overseas.
The schism is real and the Biden campaign (up to this point) hasn’t come up with a strategy that eases the fears of auto workers.
To be fair, this isn’t a new fight, the war between innovation, environmental policies, and industry is a multigenerational tale. The coal industry and your grandfather’s manufacturing industry of yesteryear have blamed job loss on policies designed to protect our air and water quality, as well as mitigation efforts to reduce the harsh effects of climate change. Biden has a tough task in changing that narrative.
Never to miss an opportunity to exploit a crisis, former President Donald Trump is skipping the second GOP primary debate on Wednesday to deliver a primetime speech and meet with striking autoworkers in Michigan. Trump’s strategy is to exploit auto workers’ angst with EV expansion and their aversion to green energy policies.
Though Trump doesn’t have a leg to stand on with regards to actual policies that supported labor unions (with the exception of tough-on-crime law enforcement labor unions) during his own presidency—nor a history of advocacy and leadership in collective bargaining—what he does have is a well-built narrative on being the fighter for “forgotten men and women” of the working class. He spent a good amount of his 2016 campaign in Rust Belt towns suffering from the shift away from mining and manufacturing, and he’s sure to deploy the same tactics when he visits Michigan auto workers this week.
To be sure, UAW workers have real and legitimate concerns.
Unions representing coal workers, steel workers, oil workers, auto workers, and others shriek at factories moving overseas, particularly when American jobs are relocated to China.
Environmental standards have been unfairly blamed for this predicament by business groups and Republicans. The phrase “job killing regulations” was popularized by Ronald Reagan during his first presidential campaign. In 1991, Gov. Pete Wilson (R-CA) echoed Reagan by attacking environmental policies. President Bill Clinton during his administration also faced Republican backlash in response to his early efforts to address the emerging information on climate science. After decades of Republican and big business aggression against green policies, the narrative caught on in multiple communities.
President “Union Joe” can’t run from this, he needs to address auto workers’ concerns head on.
Whereas EV once seemed like something out of a 1980s film set in the distant future, today the change is seen on streets across the country. California even passed a law to phase out gas-powered cars by 2035.
Meanwhile, the auto plants taking the bulk of EV manufacturing are located in the South where hostility to labor unions is ever present. The leading EV giants, Tesla and BYD, are known for low wages and various labor abuses.
Biden has to thread the needle of adapting much-needed innovation with the jobs of now (the future is here), while also maintaining an equitable workplace for auto workers.
Any policy the president supports should do a few vital things. First, they should protect against layoffs, acknowledging that new technologies and automation in EV plants can cost jobs. And he should commit to training existing auto workers on emerging tech, equipped with resource allocation devoted to that training. This would be a form of profit-sharing, allowing auto workers to benefit from long-term EV growth.
Environmental policy and green energy aren’t enemies of the American worker. If we are to remain competitive, we must embrace innovation and green tech. China and the EU set an ambitious goal for complete EV integration by 2035 and are well on their way to meeting those goals. Automakers in the U.S. will have to go green or risk decimation of the industry in less than a decade.
The shift to EV would not only cut greenhouse emissions, it would speed up the process of car manufacturing. U.S. public policy and private sector investment in EVs are behind the rest of the world, and the job to catch up doesn’t solely rest on Biden’s shoulders.
Congress has to prioritize investments in EV and infrastructure, a supply chain that places the needs of the American worker at the forefront with high-quality benefits, and constraints on non-union and temporary positions, while setting a mandatory wage bar.
The auto manufacturing industry employs more Black workers than other areas of manufacturing, and any federal policy accelerating EV will positively affect this crucial Democratic voting demographic. In concert with organizations like the NAACP, National Urban League, and the Leadership Conference, Biden and Democrats should incorporate the voices of the civil rights community in equitable policy engagement.
EV is the future, the future is now, and Democrats can win big on this issue. But they have to face it head on, address the concerns of auto workers, and drive ambitious workforce and climate impact policies. America’s global economy and climate sustainability depends on the success of policymakers to thread the needle between innovation and green tech.