After spending much of his presidency undermining labor unions, Donald Trump is coming to Michigan to try to win support from striking autoworkers. But union leaders and workers aren’t buying what the ex-president is trying to sell them.
MICHIGAN—Ahead of former President Donald Trump’s rumored campaign visit with striking autoworkers in Michigan next week, union leaders are sounding off about the ex-president’s history of abandoning unions and their members during his time in the Oval Office.
With a significant lead against his Republican rivals in presidential primary polls, Trump is reportedly planning to travel to the Detroit area on Wednesday to meet with union members, including striking members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, rather than participate in the second Republican presidential debate.
In recent days, Trump has tried to paint himself as being sympathetic to the workers, falsely accused President Joe Biden of trying to destroy the automotive industry, and said the union should endorse him and not Biden for president. The union has yet to make any endorsement in the race.
But in a statement released this week by UAW President Shawn Fain, it’s clear the union—and other labor unions in Michigan—aren’t convinced by Trump’s efforts.
“Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers,” Fain said. “We can’t keep electing billionaires and millionaires that don’t have any understanding what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to get by and expecting them to solve the problems of the working class.”
Another statement released this week by United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters General President Mark McManus argued that Trump not only “failed” unions and their workers while he was president, but that the ex-president had flat-out “screwed them over.”
McManus said Trump invited him to the White House in 2016, and promised that he would “pass the largest infrastructure bill in generations.” It ended up taking five more years—and a presidential election—to get the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed under President Joe Biden.
“He claimed to be a builder, just like us. But after four years, one thing was clear: when it comes to the bread and butter issues our members care about—fair wages, safe job sites, the ability to retire with the dignity we earned—Donald Trump is just another fraud,” McManus said in a statement.
‘Let it Go Bankrupt’
Trump’s history of criticizing labor unions began long before he was elected president in 2016.
He once said that he would’ve considered letting the automotive industry go bankrupt—costing hundreds of thousands of Michigan workers their jobs—during the Great Recession rather than provide a financial bailout to automakers like President Barack Obama did in 2009.
“You could have let it go, and rebuilt itself, through the free enterprise system,” Trump said during a campaign press conference in 2015. “You could have let it go bankrupt, frankly, and rebuilt itself, and a lot of people felt it should happen. … I could have done it either way. Either way would have been acceptable. I think you would have wound up in the same place.”
In another interview with the Detroit News, Trump also said that automakers could stop industry expansion to Mexico by moving some production out of Michigan to lower-wage states.
“You can go to different parts of the United States and then ultimately you’d do full-circle—you’ll come back to Michigan because those guys are going to want their jobs back even if it is less,” Trump said. “We can do the rotation in the United States—it doesn’t have to be in Mexico.”
And when asked directly whether he supports labor unions, Trump once said that he has had “great success” on projects both with and without union labor—but his preference is clear:
“If I had my choice,” he once told voters in Iowa. “I think I’d take it without.’’
On the campaign trail, Trump also promised voters in Warren that none of the city’s automotive manufacturing plants would close if he were elected. “You won’t lose one plant,” Trump said in 2016.
Less than a year after that speech, General Motors announced plans to layoff nearly half of its employees at a plant in Warren, and then decided to close down the factory altogether in 2019.
At another 2016 campaign stop in Grand Rapids, Trump made a broader promise to Michiganders: that workers wouldn’t lose a single automotive manufacturing job under his administration. Ford announced 2,300 job cuts in 2017—most of them in Dearborn.
US Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan) called out Trump’s hypocrisy in a statement this week.
“Trump was one of the most anti-worker presidents this country ever had,” she said. “The last thing Michigan’s auto workers need right now is more empty promises or kerosene on a fire.”
‘Draining the Swamp’
Leading up to the 2016 election, Trump routinely tweeted about “draining the swamp” of governmental influence from lobbyists. But in 2019, he appointed a labor secretary with a lengthy record of representing corporate interests and fighting against labor unions.
Former Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, the son of former Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, spent decades helping corporations (like Walmart) gut or evade worker protections. Still, Trump thought he was the best person to lead a department whose stated purpose is “to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of wage earners, job seekers, and retirees of the US.”
Trump’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board—which exists solely to encourage collective bargaining between unions and companies and ensure workers’ right to organize is not violated—also quickly rolled back several union-friendly rules that had been put in place by President Barack Obama’s administration.
And during his presidency, Trump repeatedly proposed slashing millions of dollars from the Labor Department’s annual budget, which would’ve stifled its ability to enforce workplace protections across the country and put an end to dozens of workforce development programs, including a community-service and work-based job training program designed for older adults.
“He did hardly anything, if close to nothing, for the middle class,” US Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Michigan) said in a statement this week, criticizing Trump’s announced visit. “I find this disrespectful to the men and women of the UAW on the picket line right now. Donald Trump can take his politics elsewhere.”
Over the course of his four-year presidency, Trump also tossed repeated barbs at unions—once labeling union leaders as “dues-sucking people” during a Boston Herald radio interview.
“I know the unions. They’re dues-sucking people. They just want their dues and they couldn’t care less,” Trump said. “They don’t care what their members think. They couldn’t care less.”
In a series of tweets criticizing labor unions in 2019, Trump also encouraged union members to stop paying dues because they were “not worth it.” His comments haven’t been limited to auto unions. In his 2015 book, Trump also said that he was also “not a fan” of teacher unions.
In addition to advocating for better working conditions, unions also help their members score bigger paychecks and better benefits. Federal statistics show that non-union workers only make about 85% of the earnings of workers who were union members—$1,029 versus $1,216—and that union employers are significantly more likely to provide pensions and health insurance.
“Our members across this country and in the great state of Michigan know that Donald Trump does not care about working men and women,” McManus said. “Simply put: As President, Donald Trump continued his career-long practice of stiffing workers so that he could get rich.”
In March, Michigan, long known as a mainstay of organized labor, became the first state in decades to restore workers’ rights by repealing a union-restricting law known as “right-to-work” that was passed over a decade ago by a Republican-controlled Legislature.
The state’s “right-to-work” law had allowed those in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union dues and fees, in an effort to hurt unions and reduce their bargaining power. And its repeal has since been seen as a major victory for organized labor.
“We were proud to lead the charge to eliminate the anti-worker Right-to-Work laws in Michigan, and to reinstate the state’s prevailing wage protections,” McManus said. “We are even more proud to stand with the only candidate who has the courage to stand with us: Joe Biden.”
Trump sees things differently.
At the Conservative Leadership Project’s presidential forum in 2015, Trump said he was “proud” that South Carolina was among the least-unionized states in the country—contending that states with right-to-work laws have an “advantage” because worker wages are often lower.
“One of the advantages you have is you have the lower wage, which means you might make more money if you’re a worker because you don’t have to pay all the dues and all the other things that come with union representation,” Trump reportedly said on right-to-work laws.
“Got to have right to work,” Trump said during another town hall campaign event in 2015.
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