For decades, Republicans have campaigned on promises to weaken organized labor.
But in the face of a pivotal moment for the labor movement—a historic auto workers walkout—some GOP candidates are trying to talk about anything but the strike.
The area surrounding Lansing, Michigan—where some 2,000 United Auto Workers members are on strike at a General Motors plant—is the turf of Michigan’s 7th Congressional District, one of the most competitive in the country.
The lead GOP candidate in the race, Tom Barrett, is a consistent anti-union conservative who criticized Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recent repeal of the state’s right-to-work law, which eroded labor’s clout by allowing workers in unionized shops to opt out of paying dues to the union for their bargaining efforts.
But despite his own record and the fact that the strike is dominating headlines in the district, Barrett has not issued a public statement on the strike since it began.
In an email to The Daily Beast, Barrett said he has not because “no one’s asked.”
“But since you did,” Barrett continued, “I’ve been pretty consistent in my criticism of the auto companies receiving billions in taxpayer funds, only to use those funds to hire non-union workers through joint-ventures with non-union companies like LG and the Chinese-owned Gotion. [UAW President] Shawn Fain has also been critical of these taxpayer-funded deals, saying they are ‘actively funding the race to the bottom with billions in public money.’”
Barrett’s response reflects the bind in which anti-union, right-to-work Republicans now find themselves. Today, public support for labor unions sits at 67 percent, according to Gallup’s tracking poll—a huge leap from 2010, when public sentiment for unions bottomed out at 48 percent support.
Despite their records, then, Republicans in states and districts with a strong union presence may understand that running against labor in 2024 is a political loser. If they are forced to say something, candidates are attempting to appear sympathetic to the auto workers without explicitly siding with the unions themselves.
In Michigan’s open Senate race, for instance, former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI)—a lead candidate in the GOP primary—aligned himself with workers without voicing support for organized labor.
“Bidenomics is crushing autoworkers, with higher prices for groceries and energy, while they’re forced to build cars that Americans don’t want and the future of their jobs is murky,” Rogers said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “By unleashing American innovation and getting government out of the way, we can build a brighter future for workers and not China.”
Though Rogers has touted his work on auto assembly lines in his youth, when he served in Congress he earned a 10 percent lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO—low even by Republican standards.
With the UAW strike putting labor politics at the top of the political agenda ahead of an election year, how well Republicans navigate this tight spot could influence key races in areas where contests are often decided by narrow margins.
After the 2016 election, some believed that Donald Trump charted a new path for Republicans to make inroads with organized labor. Ahead of 2024, the former president is apparently concerned about appearing pro-worker: Last week, he attempted to capitalize on the UAW walkouts in a visit to Michigan.
Trump visited an auto plant—but one staffed by non-union workers. Fain, the UAW president, slammed the stunt.
Clearly, some GOP candidates may be hoping voters won’t closely parse their strike rhetoric, but those in the labor movement don’t plan to let them off the hook.
Republicans are arguing “in a roundabout way, that you support the workers without mentioning unions and their right to organize,” said Brian Peyton, a Teamsters Union leader and political coordinator in Virginia. (UAW members went on strike at a facility operated by Stellantis—formerly Chrysler—in northern Virginia.)
As the Teamsters and their labor allies work to elect pro-union state lawmakers in the Virginia elections this November, Peyton said he has sensed momentum from the nationwide UAW strikes, which he hopes will help secure a majority that will repeal Virginia’s right-to-work law.
Peyton said he has noticed the usual suspects he deals with from the right-to-work lobby have mostly stayed silent—save for Republicans who try to have it both ways.
“If nobody is asking them the questions,” Peyton said, “they’re gonna do the two-step.”
Democrats certainly intend to keep the pressure up. In a statement to The Daily Beast, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Aidan Johnson noted Barrett's record on labor as a state lawmaker.
“So it’s fitting that Barrett won’t stand with the UAW workers on the picket line fighting for fair pay and the right to retire with dignity,” Johnson said.
Even if they are being asked questions about the strike, some GOP candidates are simply choosing to stay quiet.
In Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, where Jeep workers are currently on strike at the company’s Toledo plant, Republican congressional hopeful Craig Riedel has yet to release any public statement supporting the auto workers or the strike.
As his possible Democratic opponent, longtime Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), met with the workers on the picket line outside the Jeep plant, Riedel has been tweeting about having “so much fun” at a college football game between Notre Dame and Ohio State, along with attending the Little Brown Jug Horse Race and, on the second day of the strike, parades in two towns no more than a 20-minute and 40-minute drive from the plant.
Riedel’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
A new breed of populist Republicans—Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and J.D. Vance (R-OH)—have tried to finish Trump’s project of casting the GOP as the true ally of rank-and-file union members, though it’s obvious not every Republican is sold on the playbook.
Much more vocal than the likes of Barrett or Riedel, Vance and Hawley have tried to go on the offensive by vilifying union leadership and focusing on the Biden administration’s electric vehicle policies, while not renouncing the GOP’s foundational right-to-work economic positions.
“The whole problem that we have is a guy like Shawn Fain blasting Donald Trump,” Vance said of the UAW president to Insider. “At the very least, just shut your mouth, and take the support from wherever you can get it… The idea that this is faux-populism actually really frustrates me.”
Vance has also been promoting a bill that would qualify the Jeep plant in Toledo for a subsidy “if workers at the facility are given a significant raise.” The same bill would eliminate the Biden administration’s subsidized electric vehicle tax credits and replace them with the “America First Vehicle Credit,” encouraging the production of gas- and diesel-powered cars.
Notably, both senators have relatively safer and far more distant re-election battles than other Republicans in affected states.
Matt Grossman, a political science professor and director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, identified the GOP’s handling of the strikes as a missed political opportunity.
”Republicans have an opening,” Grossman told The Daily Beast. “If they can neutralize perceived union support, they can gain from some otherwise conservative union-affiliated voters, especially with concerns about the electric car push.”
“But the execution has been subpar,” Grossman continued, adding that it is “not clear Trump won any votes with mixed messaging, especially with the union likely to win concessions and Biden standing with them.”
In 2016, Trump put up the best margin among union households by any Republican nominee since Ronald Reagan, scraping back decades of losses with the GOP among the key voting bloc to just an 8-point deficit against Hillary Clinton.
Yet in 2020, Biden’s labor bona fides helped propel him to victory with a 17-point lead over Trump among those same voters.
Peyton said Trump’s slippage among more conservative union members was typified by a painfully obvious blunder from his recent Michigan trip: using non-union members to hold signs saying “union members for Trump,” according to The Detroit News.
Immediately upon looking at the signs held by supporters at the Trump rally, Peyton noticed something key was missing: the so-called union bug, a small insignia at the bottom of political signs that proves it was made in a union shop.
“When I first saw that article on Trump and the workers, I looked for the bug and I knew the whole thing was bogus,” the Teamsters veteran said. “It’s not a good look.”