A study in contrasts: Biden stands with auto workers, while Trump looks down upon them

Not just a different look — Biden supports workers in policy, while Trump reveals his true views a non-union plant

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published September 28, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

CLINTON TOWNSHIP, MICHIGAN - SEPTEMBER 27: Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Drake Enterprises, an automotive parts manufacturer, on September 27, 2023 in Clinton Township, Michigan. President Joe Biden met with striking UAW workers the day before at a General Motors parts facility.  ( (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images))
CLINTON TOWNSHIP, MICHIGAN - SEPTEMBER 27: Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Drake Enterprises, an automotive parts manufacturer, on September 27, 2023 in Clinton Township, Michigan. President Joe Biden met with striking UAW workers the day before at a General Motors parts facility. ( (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images))

This week, President Joe Biden did what no president has done before: He walked a picket line in solidarity with striking workers. He joined a group of red shirt-clad members of United Auto Workers (UAW) outside a General Motors facility in Michigan, and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them as Shawn Fain, the president of UAW, spoke to the crowd for about ten minutes. Then Biden took the bullhorn and spoke briefly.

"You've heard me say it many times. Wall Street didn't build the country. The middle class built the country, and unions built the middle class. And that's a fact. So, let's keep going," he told the group of striking workers. "You deserve what you've earned, and you've earned a hell of a lot more than you're getting paid now."

He finished there, but did answer when a union member asked him if he agrees that "the UAW get a 40 percent increase." Biden replied, "Yes, I think they should be able to bargain for that."

Biden's brevity, even more than his baseball cap and fleece jacket, conveyed a message: He is letting the workers take the lead. The entire event was structured to send a message that the Biden White House is here to serve the union, as they navigate the tricky transition to manufacturing electric vehicles. Biden's posture in every photo sent the message: He is not here to tell union organizers what to do. 

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Contrast that with Donald Trump's much-hyped speech Wednesday night at Drake Enterprises. Even though much of the press portrayed it as "reaching out" to the members of the UAW, the car parts factory is not a union shop. Craig Mauer of the Detroit News reported that one woman holding a "union members for Trump" sign acknowledged she wasn't a union member. A man with a sign that said "auto workers for Trump" admitted he wasn't even an autoworker. 

Before he even said a word, the choice suggested Trump's pitch to workers would sidestep the issues central to the labor movement, such as their right to organize and collectively bargain. Trump's speech was the usual rambling brags, lies about Biden, and barstool-style rants about the supposed evils of windmills and electric vehicles. He praised himself for having associated in the past with "people like you," and claimed, as usual, to be a victim supposedly targeted for "risking it all." At one point, he complained, "now I get indicted like every three days." 

He also wished that "United Auto Workers will endorse Donald Trump for President," complaining "They always endorse a Democrat," which he ascribed to a "bad habit."

Trump used a lot of adjectives, but the meat of his speech was repeating the automaker line that industry is benevolent and it's unions that are the problem: "You're striking for wages but your jobs are only going to be here for two or three years if you're lucky."

"Your current negotiations don't mean as much as you think," Trump said, continuing his theme that workers themselves are not to be trusted, but that they need his guiding hand to know what is good for them. 

In the midst of his Trump's repeated, hard-to-follow digressions — mostly on the subject of his own greatness — one theme emerged: Trump claims that it's him and the industry looking out for workers, and not the unions. 

The contrast with Biden couldn't be more stark. Biden was on the ground with the workers, letting them tell him what they needed in this rapidly changing industry. Trump was standing over workers, issuing a long-winded lecture centered on one theme: How he and the automakers are owed their loyalty. He repeatedly insulted the union organizers that are fighting for workers to have higher wages and better job projections. Biden invited labor leaders to lead the way. Trump took a paternalistic view that workers need to give up on unions and trust the car manufacturers to take care of them. 

The differences aren't merely aesthetic. They reflect a vast policy difference between Biden and Trump on the labor issue. As his standing-back posture during the UAW event suggested, Biden's record in the White House has mostly been supportive of the labor movement. Trump, however, has consistently embraced anti-labor and pro-corporate policies.

Biden's White House frequently calls him the "most pro-union president in history," which is political fluffery, but rooted in facts. As labor historian Erik Loomis told the Atlantic, "past presidents may have put a lot of the pressure on the union leaders" during negotiations, but Biden "is using his power to put pressure on the companies." Even though President Franklin Roosevelt signed a lot of pro-union legislation, Loomis argued, "the difference is that Biden is using real political capital in favor of unions in a deeply divided America."

Biden stacked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) with labor lawyers, who have been busy pulling the slow-moving levers of government in favor of union organizing. After decades of Republican attacks on labor and Democratic neglect, Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect wrote in August, the changes at the NLRB "effectively makes union organizing possible again." The changes are detailed and wonky, but the main takeaway is that Biden has refitted the NLRB with tools to punish employers who illegally interfere with workers' right to organize. 

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These machinations are bureaucratic and often boring, so they garner little media attention. Progressive pundits often overlook Biden's accomplishments on this front, as well, because they tend to be more focused on top-down strategies for economic progress, such as passing big social spending bills. Labor organizing, however, is a bottom-up strategy, where better living conditions for workers are built by workers and union representatives, one contract at a time. Both strategies have value, but the latter is often too complex to get as much discussion in the social media-driven era. 

Trump's record is the opposite of Biden's. As labor expert Steven Greenhouse wrote in the Detroit Free Press on Monday, "Trump and his administration did far more to stab workers in the back." For four years, Trump undermined safety regulations and rolled back regulations guaranteeing overtime pay and the right to organize. As Greenhouse notes, "When nominating U.S. Supreme Court justices, Trump chose people who were far friendlier to corporations than to workers. One of his appointees provided the deciding vote in Janus v. AFSCME — the most important anti-union decision in decades."

And as John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker, Trump also "introduced new restrictions on unionization votes and made it easier for firms to classify workers as independent contractors, thus depriving them of union wage scales and benefits." Biden, on the other hand, made a point of hiring people who swiftly undid Trump policies, and passed new rules advancing the rights of workers. 

Instead of trying to woo workers with pro-labor policies, Trump and his fellow Republicans are hoping to use culture war antics and divisive identity politics to pit union workers against young environmental activists. Trump dug hard into this idea, calling environmentalists "loons" and "Marxists," ignoring the scientific evidence that climate change is real and fueled by carbon emissions. 

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There's little doubt that these tactics have worked in the past. Many older working class people have been taken with grievance-oriented claims that young, college-educated idealists want to save the planet, but not their jobs. But that view is challenged by the UAW, which is explicitly trying to navigate these industry changes. As the New York Times noted, the anti-electric car ads Republicans are running do "not specifically mention the strike." Trump doesn't have much of a message, besides demonizing electric cars. But that evades the issue of how American manufacturers can compete, if foreign automakers take the lead on the increasingly viable electric car market. 

Biden had tried policies to incentivize electric vehicles that are union-made, but Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., torpedoed the effort. It may be that Biden is hoping this UAW strike will succeed where legislative efforts failed, to keep electric vehicle manufacturing jobs in union hands. Biden has repeatedly argued that his legislation will create "record profits" for automakers by keeping electric vehicle manufacturing in the U.S., and framed his support for UAW as a way to "ensure record corporate profits mean record contracts for the UAW."

The UAW president, Shawn Fain, has been critical at points of Biden, and there have been a lot of complaints that the president didn't fight hard enough to keep electric vehicle manufacturers in union hands. But Biden's efforts to step up support are clearly appreciated, with Fain remarking that, "we know the President will do right by the working class." On the subject of Trump, however, Fain has been resolutely negative. 

"I find a pathetic irony that the former president is going to hold a rally for union members at a nonunion business," Fain told NBC News. "I don't think the man has any bit of care about what our workers stand for, what the working class stands for. He serves a billionaire class and that's what's wrong with this country."

As Trump's speech indicated, he is hoping to use bombast and culture war politics to persuade workers that their interests align more with the industry than with the unions. Dan Pfeiffer, who worked as Barack Obama's top communications official, is skeptical it will work. As he writes in his newsletter, "Not only are labor unions popular, they are more popular than they have been in decades," sitting at 67% approval. Support for the UAW strike went up after it started, which is counter to most historical trends. 

Trump wants in on this labor action, which is why he's pretending to support labor, even as both his record and his remarks Wednesday night demonstrate anti-union views. Sarah Jones at New York magazine took the mainstream media to task for their coverage of Trump's visit, noting, "Donald Trump is not going to speak to striking autoworkers on Wednesday. He is going to a non-union auto supplier in Michigan, where he will perform a pro-labor routine in front of workers who are not represented by the UAW." She points to multiple mainstream outlets that misrepresent Trump's visit and even, falsely, imply that Trump has sympathetic views for labor rights. But Biden's visit seems to have transformed the coverage, by creating this contrast. By Wednesday, most major outlets were running articles highlighting Trump's anti-labor record, versus Biden's far more pro-union policies. 

It's unlikely, however, most of the press will even notice that Trump's speech was an anti-union, pro-industry diatribe. Trump's tendency to talk at length, mostly about himself but also about weird stuff like windmills, distracts from the actual points he's making. But to those listening carefully, it was quite clear: Trump was waving off unions as useless and asking workers to put their trust in their employers and right-wing leaders like him. Biden, on the other hand, sent a clear message of faith in the workers themselves — and a willingness to let them take the lead. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Analysis Donald Trump Joe Biden United Auto Workers