Last week, Donald Trump announced a plan to compete with the second Republican presidential primary debate by speaking to union members in Michigan as the United Auto Workers wage a strike against Detroit’s “Big Three” auto manufacturers. The plan got a lot of attention, and it continued to be framed in the media as Trump reaching out to union workers, even after it was known that the speech would be held at a nonunion auto parts manufacturer. It was a win for Trump, though, who got several news cycles of coverage suggesting his record on labor issues was far better than it is.
By the time Trump arrived, though, President Joe Biden had already spoken to striking workers on the picket line, a first for a sitting president. When asked if he would meet with Trump, UAW President Shawn Fain told CNN, “I see no point in meeting with him, because I don’t think the man has any bit of care for what our workers care for, for what the working class stands for. He serves the billionaire class and that’s what’s wrong with this country.”
Trump’s audience is allegedly composed of “around 500 former or current union members.” As the crowd gathered, NBC News reporter Vaughn Hillyard estimated that 20% of the people in the audience were UAW members, though just a few of those, he wrote, were currently on strike. “I don’t know where they’re at. But there are several — a handful,” a former auto worker and current Auto Workers for Trump activist told NBC News reporters.
Upon taking the stage, Trump immediately went to his current favorite talking point, accusing Biden of killing auto jobs with policies favoring electric vehicles. “It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what you get [out of UAW negotiations] cause you’re all going to be out of business,” he claimed. Being Trump, he didn’t stay on topic for long, peppering his speech with what passes for humor in his view—“I never heard of the word indictment, now I get indicted like every three days”—and a “Barack Hussein Obama” reference as if it was 2009, not 2023. But when he was on topic, the primary focus was not workers’ rights or the massive amounts the Big Three auto companies have been paying their top executives and dedicating to stock buybacks: It was electric vehicles, and his false claims about them.
”Donald Trump is lying about President Biden’s agenda to distract from his failed track record of trickle-down tax cuts, closed factories, and jobs outsourced to China,” a Biden-Harris campaign spokesperson responded to Trump in an emailed statement. “There is no ‘EV mandate.’ Simply put: Trump had the United States losing the EV race to China and if he had his way, the jobs of the future would be going to China. President Biden is delivering where Donald Trump failed by bringing manufacturing back home, and with it, good-paying jobs for the American people.”
This isn’t just Trump’s talking point. Other Republicans, like Sen. Josh Hawley, have gotten on board with the claim that the autoworkers are on strike because of Biden’s policies promoting electric vehicles, and that Biden’s climate efforts are sending auto jobs to China. It’s true that the UAW has expressed concerns about protecting jobs and pay in a transition to electric vehicles. But Democrats have been working on that: The Inflation Reduction Act included provisions to support electric vehicle and battery production in this country. Last month, TechCrunch reported, “In 2019, just two battery factories [for EVs] were operating in the United States with another two under construction. Today there are about 30 battery factories either planned, under construction or operational in the country.” The IRA is a major reason for that.
A shift to electric vehicles could indeed cut jobs, but doing it the right way, with policy supports in place, could mean more auto jobs, according to an Economic Policy Institute analysis. As with any major manufacturing transition, lawmakers must focus on getting it done the right way, situating new forms of manufacturing in the U.S. and ensuring that the jobs are as good as the ones they replaced. Donald Trump and Republicans are not going to be the ones to do that.
The Biden-Harris campaign offered important context for Trump’s champion-of-the-workers rhetoric:
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