Meet the Michigan workers supporting Biden over Trump

Photo Illustration/Mark Peterson/Getty Images

By Kyle Kaminski

May 22, 2024

Union workers are standing behind President Joe Biden’s efforts to invest in manufacturing, infrastructure, and clean energy—and sounding alarms over what another Trump administration could mean for Michigan’s middle class.

MICHIGAN—John Coleman has already decided which candidate will earn his vote in this year’s presidential election. As a union organizer for metal workers across Michigan, he said it was a relatively simple decision that all boiled down to an even simpler underlying philosophy:

“We support people who support labor. Period,” Coleman, of Traverse City, told The ‘Gander.

Coleman’s local labor union represents about 2,200 sheet metal workers, or more than half of the unionized sheet metal workforce in Michigan. And he said President Joe Biden’s record of supporting labor unions and investing in the workforce has transformed what would have otherwise been a contentious election into an easy choice for him and his fellow union workers.

“He finds the right people to put in place to make good legislation. And for me, at the end of the day, you really just have to look at that,” Coleman said. “I don’t need him to get in a boxing match or run a marathon. I need him to sign legislation that benefits me as an American.”

In recent months, Biden has racked up significant support from labor unions in his bid for a second term—including from the United Auto Workers (UAW) after Biden became the first president in modern history to join striking auto workers on the picket line in Michigan.

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Our very own Kyle Kaminski rode along with President Biden’s motorcade on Tuesday, as he he became the first president in modern history to join a picket line and stand in solidarity with striking workers. WATCH for our coverage and a behind-the-scenes look of what things were like on the ground in Wayne County. #UAWStrike #Unionstrong #NewsUpdate #Michigander #Michiganders #Union #HotUnionSummer

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And with less than six months until Election Day, Biden’s support from organized labor appears to be growing as more Michigan workers stand behind the president’s vision to invest in infrastructure, manufacturing, and clean energy to help spur the creation of new jobs.

Blueprints vs. Chaos

Nearly all major labor unions across the country have endorsed Biden ahead of November, including the AFL-CIO, which represents about 60 unions and has over 12 million members.

Coleman’s union, the International Association of Sheet Metal Workers, endorsed Biden last summer. The United Steelworkers followed suit in March. The North American Building Trades Union and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers endorsed Biden’s re-election in April.

And while union leaders have slammed Trump for essentially abandoning workers during his time in the Oval Office, they’re billing Biden as the most pro-labor president in modern history—largely because of his efforts to invest in the workforce and grow the middle class.

Mike Salas, another organizer and another longtime member of the International Association of Sheet Metal Workers, said interest in the skilled trades has also exploded under the Biden administration—with class sizes for union apprentices doubling over the last two years, he said.

“My son is in the program now. My middle child is getting into this, too,” Salas said. “Anything that can better my family or any middle class family, to me, is a no-brainer. I think that all the gains we’ve gotten will be for nothing if Trump wins this. We’ll be back to the same clown show.”

Over the last four years, Biden has signed bills to expand and raise standards in both the manufacturing and construction industries—as well as steered into law legislation (like the Inflation Reduction Act) to invest billions of dollars into both infrastructure and clean energy.

Since being signed into law, the Inflation Reduction Act has driven $92 billion in investment into clean energy technology across the United States and created 84,000 manufacturing jobs—including $21.5 billion in funding to support the creation of 20,000 jobs in Michigan. In all, Biden has overseen the creation of more than 15 million jobs in the US since taking office.

Eric Farrington, of Holt, has been a member of the International Association of Sheet Metal Workers for 25 years. And over the last four of them, thanks in large part to the legislation that Biden has enacted, business has been “phenomenal,” Farrington told The ‘Gander.

“I put in a record number of hours over the last year. This is a level of work our union hasn’t seen since 2005,” he said. “I see the hours have increased and they have been steadily increasing every year that Biden has been in office. He supports how we put food on the table.”

And Coleman said those investments won’t be lost on Michigan’s workforce come Election Day.

“I know he stutters. I know he’s 80 years old. I don’t care. His policies are good,” Coleman said. “With these new infrastructure laws, I wouldn’t say we’re busting at the seams, but we are definitely growing steady for sure. There’s a lot of work now and there’s more on the horizon.”

‘Better Wages…Better Benefits’

In a series of interviews with The ‘Gander, Coleman, Salas, Farrington, and other Michigan workers from a range of industries said they’re holding the line for Biden this year—and sounding an alarm over what another Trump presidency could mean for working families.

“If you’re going to build a house, you’ve got to have a blueprint. And if you don’t have a blueprint for what you’re going to do, it’s just chaos,” Coleman explained. “With Trump not having an agenda, what you’re going to get is lobbyists coming in and pushing the agenda upon him.”

Dave Fashbaugh has been an electrical worker in Traverse City for decades—and just like his father, when he retires, he expects to collect benefits and a healthy pension that he earned through the support from his union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

After four years of watching Trump carve out federal policies that favor the ultra-rich and corporations, he’s been thrilled to see the Biden administration invest in workers instead.

“President Biden, with his policies, is injecting a lot of money into the system that’s available for workers—and that’s what’s going to rebuild this country,” Fashbaugh explained. “It isn’t going to be the millionaires and billionaires because their attitude is: ‘I got mine. Screw you.’”

But ahead of Election Day, Fashbaugh is starting to worry about job security for future generations of union workers, particularly if Trump and Republican lawmakers are able to regain control of the federal government and reel back pro-worker policies put in place under Biden.

“For blue collar jobs, I’m terrified,” Fashbaugh explained. “The things that Biden put into play for the economy, people are seeing that they’re getting better wages, they’re getting better benefits. Health plans like ours are becoming healthier. Our pensions have become healthier. We get Trump back in office, he is going to flay that back out—and people are not going to go for it.”

Farrington is also concerned about losing that momentum, should Trump return to office.

“A lot of the prosperity that we’ve been able to enjoy as construction workers might decrease with Trump. Trump is not for the EV industry. That’s brought a lot of work to our members here—especially in Mid-Michigan with the new Ultium plant coming into Lansing,” he said. “There’s a lot of rhetoric out there about EVs, but I don’t care what’s coming out of your building, as long as union members are the ones going in to build it. That’s all that matters to me.”

Broken Promises

While on the campaign trail, Trump has sought to refashion his record and image as being a pro-worker candidate—one that wants to protect American labor. But Trump’s actual record on workers undercuts his stump speeches and his claims of being a populist, pro-worker candidate.

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.

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 rolled back several union-friendly rules that had been in place for years.

And during his time in the White House, Trump personally embraced numerous anti-worker policies, including a proposal to slash millions of dollars from the Labor Department’s annual budget, which would’ve stifled its ability to enforce workforce protections across the country.

Mike Polkki, a union iron miner working at one of the remaining iron mines in the Upper Peninsula, also highlighted the stark contrast between the Trump and Biden administrations.

“The difference between what the prior president and what we have now is simply competence. Joe Biden has done most of what he said he is going to do—especially for the American worker,” Polkki told The ‘Gander. “The previous labor board was one of the most anti-union, if not the most anti-union labor boards and their decisions were devastating to workers.”

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Mike Polkki is growing concerned about what the future might hold for his fellow steelworkers and other union members in Michigan if ex-President Donald Trump is able to regain control of the federal government. Union leaders have said Trump’s first term was far from worker-friendly—citing unfulfilled promises of jobs that never came to fruition, as well as thousands more that Trump essentially incentivized to move overseas. #trump #politics #michigan #union

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As a candidate, Trump promised to “stop jobs from leaving America” and to put American workers first. Throughout his presidency, however, he encouraged the outsourcing and offshoring of jobs, taking jobs away from American workers—including by pushing for a corporate tax cut bill that gave companies a 50% tax break on their foreign profits.

Experts at both the Tax Policy Center and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) have noted that since this legislation created additional incentives for companies to move their jobs overseas, it essentially accelerated the offshoring of American jobs and operations.

According to a 2020 report from the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen, 200,000 American jobs were offshored during Trump’s presidency, and he awarded more than $425 billion in federal contracts to several major corporations that were responsible for doing so.

The Trump administration also repeatedly opposed legislation to increase the federal minimum wage, as well as changed the rules for who qualifies for overtime pay—making more than 8 million workers ineligible and costing them a combined $1 billion annually in lost wages.

Additionally, Trump’s administration rolled back rules that made it more difficult to award federal contracts to companies that were repeat violators of sexual harassment laws, racial discrimination laws, wage laws, and laws protecting workers’ right to unionize. In other words: he made it easier to award federal contracts to companies that repeatedly violated these laws.

‘He is all talk’

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, and more recently, labeling UAW President Shawn Fain as a “fool” in an interview in April.

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 86% of the earnings of union workers—$1,090 versus $1,263 per week—and that union employers are also significantly more likely to provide pensions and health insurance.

Last year, the state of Michigan, long known as a mainstay of organized labor, also 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.

That old state 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. Trump, however, 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.

“[Trump] is all fake. He is all talk,” Polkki told The ‘Gander. “I have a lot of friends that work in coal mines out west, and they thought he was going to be their savior. He did nothing for them … He said he was going to save it, but never did a damn thing.”

Even though Polkki has some conservative beliefs, he said his choice to back Biden in this year’s presidential election was an obvious decision for him—and that Michigan’s economy (and its workers) simply cannot afford another four years of a second Trump presidency.

“We have a choice between the steady leadership that we’ve had the last four years or complete chaos,” Polkki explained. “I do have some conservative values, but with the way that [Trump] is and the way that his record is, it’s just embarrassing that this is where we are at as a country.”

READ MORE: Union leaders across Michigan blast Trump for ‘broken promises’

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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