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Trump heads to Michigan to compete with Biden for union votes while his GOP challengers debate

By JILL COLVIN, Associated Press
Published: September 27, 2023, 11:03am

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.

The Republican front-runner’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 preview what will likely be a chief dynamic of the 2024 general election, which increasingly looks like a rematch between Trump and Biden. Michigan is expected to again be a critical battleground state as both candidates try to paint themselves as champions of the working class.

Trump’s decision to skip another debate comes as he maintains a commanding lead in the GOP primary — even as he faces four separate criminal indictments — and as his campaign works to pivot to the general election months before primary voting begins next year.

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. The company makes automotive and heavy-duty truck components including gear shift levers for semi-trucks, which would be hurt by a shift to electric vehicles, said Nathan Stemple, the company’s president.

Trump’s audience will include several hundred current and former UAW members, as well as members of plumbers and pipefitters unions.

The former president has tried to capitalize on the strike to drive a wedge between Biden and union workers, a constituency that helped pave the way for his 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 that 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 turn union members against 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.

Just hours before Trump’s visit, the UAW posted a video on its Facebook page protesting factory closures by Detroit’s automakers that included 2017 footage of Trump telling a northern Ohio crowd that auto jobs would be coming back. Two years later, General Motors closed a huge assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, costing thousands of jobs.

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 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 job security.

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% to 40% 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 the Ohio GM plant.

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 in on the union’s proposal, but aides insist its rank-and-file members “are in a much different place than their political leaders.”

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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% 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.

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.

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