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Why Autoworkers Don’t Trust Democrats


You and I know that Joe Biden has been very good on the labor front. But there’s only so much he can do in the face of opposition in Congress. The PRO Act isn’t going to pass (I doubt it has 50 votes, never mind 60). Corporations effectively control the legal process set up by the NLRB to adjudicate union elections. Still, Biden has done a lot of good things–reinvigorating the NLRB as much as he can, coming out in direct support of Amazon workers trying to unionize, saying a lot of right things. But as the United Auto Workers go on strike, their members don’t necessarily support him. That doesn’t mean they support Trump either. But they don’t support Biden. The reasons for this are more than a little inchoate, but then most people have no idea what they really mean when they talk about politics anyway. Here’s a bit of this. It’s Politico, so of course, but bear with me.

“I think he did,” Quirk said. “And I think he set high standards and I think everybody knows that you gotta shoot high and then you can always go lower. In the past, we’ve always set low and we’ve settled for crumbs.” Quirk voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and then Donald Trump in 2020.

Had President Joe Biden, the self-described “most pro-union president in American history,” done enough to forestall a strike?

“I don’t know what he’s done,” Quirk said. “Ask him. I don’t think he knows what he’s done. Seriously. I’m not trying to be mean.” Quirk wasn’t freelancing: Fain and the union haven’t yet endorsed Biden’s reelection, throwing into doubt Biden’s standing in autoworker-heavy communities like his.

Biden had spoken that day with Fain and auto company CEOs. The chair of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers said this week that Biden had been “very much engaged.”

But his efforts weren’t resonating inside the union hall. Next to Quirk sat another committee member, Denny Butler. At 52, he was born in this town and would likely die in this town. Earlier Thursday, he left the union hall around 4 p.m. and, to calm his nerves, poured himself a cocktail: a Captain and Diet Coke.

He wasn’t supporting Biden or Trump at the moment, and he didn’t think either party was truly on autoworkers’ side.

“They’re all full of shit,” Butler said. “We haven’t had a president in there for years, with the exception of Trump, that was really for the people, all the way back to the Reagan days.”

“Historically, man, if you didn’t vote Democrat years ago, and you were in the union, sometimes you got your ass kicked,” he said. “Democrats were for the working people. That shit has changed. I’m telling you what, the Democratic Party was not what it was 20, 30 years ago.”

And there was Dave Johnson, a 64-year-old union committeeman. At 3 p.m, he had gone home to prepare for a strike. His wife was sick. He’d made her chicken noodle soup, and he ordered a pie from the local Pizza King — the one he brought to the union hall for others.

Johnson didn’t vote for Biden in 2020. And he won’t be voting for him next year.

“Terrible,” he said. “Can’t remember his own name. It needs to be someone else besides those two guys. I’d vote for Obama.”

OK, whew, this is a lot. I mean, the Hillary/Trump voter for one thing….

But, again, bear with me here a bit. First, and again, lots and lots and lots of people have politics that are shaped by these seemingly bizarre and nonsensical feelings that have no consistency at all. Make fun of them if you want, but they are the voters. Second, what Biden has to fight here is the sense–and in this these workers are largely correct–that the Democratic Party has not been on their side for a very long time. As the one worker says, the Democrats used to be different. And quite honestly, they are today, more than they have been for a long, long time. Neoliberalism is not nearly as powerful in the Democratic Party as it was even 15 years ago, never mind 30. But still, these perceptions stick around a long, long time. Clinton, Carter, and Obama (especially in the first term) were all in on promoting corporate policies over unions. Workers got screwed again and again as factories closed, companies went after the unions, and no one ever offered anything to workers except for retraining programs that they didn’t want and led to nothing anyway. Yes, of course Republicans were no better, but Republicans offer a different set of myths and a different kind of channeling anger and resentment that unions can fight against if they think someone has their interests in mind. But Carter and Clinton especially did not.

And Obama–and remember that Biden was part of this too–might have saved autoworker jobs through the bailout, but he and the Democratic Party’s economic team, starting with Bob Rubin and Larry Summers and going on down through Tim Geitner and so many others, did far too little to hold the auto companies accountable during the bailout. They allowed the reinforcement and expansion of two-tiered wage rates that the union is still fighting to end in this strike. They could have mandated the corporate heads got the same pay raise as workers and no more. They could have said, OK, the UAW is sacrificing now, but we are setting up this bailout so that the bad parts of this have a sundown and then they have to get paid back later when the profits rise. But they did none of this. The UAW has shrunk and shrunk and they sacrificed and the corporate heads got richer and OK, now Biden actually does care about the union. Absolutely he does.

But you are fighting against decades of believing the Democrats are not what they once were. And forget that guy saying the party needs to be like it was 20 or 30 years ago; again, he is just engaging in vague reminiscences about the past. Of course there were good Democrats back then–Tom Harkin, Ted Kennedy, etc.–who were leading the union fight in the party. But it’s really the 1960s and before that people are hearkening back to. And no matter what Biden does, it’s going to be hard to take down that mixture of anger and nostalgia and impression that is very sticky in the thoughts of people who don’t really pay attention to the details of politics.

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