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Joe Biden and Donald Trump are Competing for Labor Support
The fact that it’s a competition at all speaks volumes.
On September 27, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library will host the second debate of the 2024 Republican presidential primary season. Rather than taking part in this spectacle, former president Donald Trump plans to give a primetime campaign speech in Detriot to an audience comprised largely of current and former members of the United Auto Workers union.
UAW members are currently engaged in an historic strike against all of the Big Three automakers. The union is demanding more pay and better job protections for manufacturing workers as companies are poised to transition to electric vehicles even as offshoring and (inshoring to non-union states) remains a perennial threat.
Although the Biden administration initially declared an intent to “stay out” of the conflict between auto workers and their employers, the president reversed course and now plans to join a picket line on Tuesday, the day before the Trump’s event, to shore up his labor bona fides.
The fact that labor is a contested constituency at all is a sign of the times.
Union membership in the U.S. is now at a record low. Unions are perceived as increasingly divorced from the rank-and-file workers, and more focused on pushing niche agendas of the college-educated folks that administer them rather than protecting jobs or improving pay and working conditions for members. According to research by Oren Cass, the top reason working-class Americans mistrust unions is that they are perceived as being too political—and too focused on progressive cultural politics in particular.
In 2016, Trump effectively positioned himself around the values and priorities of blue collar workers. He was culturally moderate but symbolically conservative (i.e. he celebrated tradition, religion, patriotism, rootedness, etc.). He advocated for an “America first” foreign policy, complete with trade and immigration protectionism. He vowed to safeguard entitlements and restore domestic manufacturing. He pledged to make massive investments in infrastructure. He was completely unconcerned about deficit spending.
Working-class voters had been growing alienated from the Democratic Party since Bill Clinton’s first term. In 2016, these defections were sufficient to change the outcome of the race, flipping key Rust Belt states into the Republican column, and denying Hillary Clinton an Electoral College victory.
However, Trump largely pursued a conventional Republican economic agenda in the White House: tax cuts, deregulation, and repealing Obamacare. His proposed infrastructure plans failed to materialize. Despite Trump’s campaign promises to protect Medicare and Social Security, as president he expressed openness to cutting entitlements as well. Portraying himself as a dealmaker who would get things done, the Trump administration instead was plagued by chronic corruption, scandal, incompetence, and internal turmoil.
This chasm between campaign promises and White House realities did not go unnoticed. The GOP saw noteworthy declines in union support from 2016 to 2020 which probably helped flip key states Rust Belt states back to the Democrats, once again changing the outcome of the election. And after losing in 2020, Trump further alienated many prospective GOP voters by engaging in election denial, sandbagging his party in the 2022 midterms.
In short, Trump has a lot of liabilities with working-class voters going into the 2024 election. But Democrats aren’t exactly in a strong position either.
College-educated white professionals have come to represent the party’s primary economic base and increasingly set Democrats’ agenda and messaging. For them, left economic priorities come in a distant second to symbolic struggles.
As white professionals have risen in influence within the Democratic Party, non-white, working-class, and religious-minority voters have been increasingly alienated from the party. Labor, a historically reliable Democrat voting bloc, has now become a cross-pressured constituency. Indeed, the Democrats have struggled to build a stable coalition at all.
Trump has little to offer workers beyond culture war grievances, implausible policy proposals, and a record of failures and broken promises. Most of the right-wing “populist” alternatives to Trump are offering little more than combatting “wokeness” in a technocratic fashion while pushing standard Republican economic policies that redistribute income towards the millionaires and billionaires.
Mainstream GOP candidates are even worse. As governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley proudly declared, “I continue to be a union-buster, because every time you see me on national TV busting unions, another CEO calls.” And as a 2024 Republican nominee for president she has continued her aggressive anti-union crusade, even in the midst of the ongoing strikes, joined by fellow traditional Republican Tim Scott.
Nonetheless, Democrats continue to see attrition with working-class Americans across the board—not just the “white working class.” This weakness with working-class constituents isn’t due to some defect in voters, it’s a glaring rebuke of what the Democratic Party has become.
Neither party is truly promoting a labor- or worker-centered agenda. Instead, one party is captured by white liberal urban professionals and the other by non-corporate business interests. Working-class voters are therefore forced to choose between a party that ignores their economic interests while its core constituency lectures them for their purported cultural deficiencies versus a party that’s more hostile to their economic interests but is at least willing to take the folks mocking, deriding, and micromanaging them down a few pegs.
If this is the choice that working-class voters have to make, it probably won’t work out well for the Democratic Party, or America writ large.
In light of these realities, Biden dropping in for a picket line photo op on Tuesday is a good symbolic move. But photo ops alone aren’t going to save the party in 2024. After all, the next day Trump will be be putting on a good populist show as well. And he’ll be able to claim, with some justification if we’re being honest, that the only reason Biden took a strong stand in the strike at all is because Trump had already declared himself as being unequivocally on the side of the striking workers (against both their employers and their purportedly corrupt and incompetent union leaders) and had already scheduled high-profile events in Michigan to underscore his supposed commitment to working-class Americans.
It's not a good look for the Democratic candidate to be playing catch up to the GOP frontrunner on labor disputes. But such is the world we live in these days.
Musa al-Gharbi is a sociologist in the School of Communication and Journalism at Stony Brook University.