Biden on the Picket Line, Trump in the Wings

The following piece is from guest columnist Harold Meyerson and was originally published in the American Prospect. 

The most pro-labor thing Franklin Roosevelt ever did—I’d argue, the most radical thing he ever did, period—was, precisely, nothing. When San Francisco and Minneapolis were shut down by general strikes in 1934, and when autoworkers barricaded themselves inside General Motors factories in 1936-1937, FDR did what none of his presidential predecessors would have done. He refused to send in the Army (or, as some had demanded, the Navy, to end San Francisco’s waterfront-centered strike). He let these epochal uprisings play out without deploying troops to break the strikes (and strikers’ heads), as his presidential predecessors (including Democrat Grover Cleveland) had routinely done. Privately, Roosevelt and his labor secretary, Frances Perkins, did lean on GM President Alfred P. Sloan, as well as CIO President John L. Lewis, to come to terms.

On Tuesday, Joe Biden raised the bar on presidential pro-labor action by joining a UAW picket line in Michigan and telling workers that their demands were just and necessary if the American middle class were to grow again. (Whether that surpasses Roosevelt’s pro-labor inaction in the annals of our nation’s ever-present class wars, I leave to future historians.) Biden spoke of the sacrifices the union had made—which included abandoning the yearly cost-of-living adjustments that had been a key part of UAW contracts since 1950—when the auto companies faced bankruptcy in 2009 following Wall Street’s implosion. He referenced the immense profits that the companies had made since then, and said it was time that the workers themselves shared in that bounty.

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He went, in short, where no president, even FDR, had gone before, and, however brief his remarks, he got to the heart of a lot of what ails the American economy. According to the yearly SEC report, the CEOs of General Motors and Stellantis made in a single day last year what it took their median worker the entire year to make (the ratio between CEO and median worker pay last year at Stellantis was 365-to-1, and at GM 362-to-1).

UAW President Shawn Fain took the bullhorn after Biden had finished and put his union’s fight in context, saying it was part of the battle that teachers, baristas, actors, writers, hotel and hospital workers were also waging. (In fact, the 53,000-member hotel workers union in Las Vegas conducted a strike authorization vote yesterday, and 75,000 medical staffers at Kaiser in California could walk out next week.) He noted that the UAW local on the picket line that he and Biden had joined was Local 174, the local that the young Walter Reuther had built months before the GM sit-downs. He pointed out that the picket line was a relative stone’s throw away from the Willow Run facility where UAW members had built the bombers that attacked Nazi Germany. He quoted the line from “Solidarity Forever” that says, “Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn.”

That past, Fain said, set the template for the current strike and the union’s future, which can only mean rolling the union on to new efforts to organize the auto plants of the anti-union South and the more anti-union Elon Musk.

Today, Donald Trump will also trundle to Michigan, to address what’s been described as current and former autoworkers and other current and former blue-collar employees. He will be inveighing against electric vehicles, as well as everything else he inveighs against, at a non-union auto parts supplier in Macomb County, Drake Enterprises, at the management’s request. He can’t even fake populism all that well, but like the new European right, he stokes not only his working-class supporters’ racial and cultural anxieties but some of their economic anxieties (electrification, offshoring, a loss of support for the elderly) as well.

Biden, by contrast, didn’t stoke anxiety yesterday, save, perhaps, in the auto industry’s C-suites. In a move of historic importance, though, he did link his administration’s mission with that of the striking workers and, by extension, with the tens of millions of workers who should be striking if the nation is ever to recreate the broadly shared prosperity that it imperfectly experienced during Biden’s younger days.

I WON’T BE COVERING TRUMP’S EVENT, but in a sense, I’ve already been there and done that. In 1996, I spent a week covering the Republican presidential primary campaign of Pat Buchanan for the L.A. Weekly, as Buchanan swung through Michigan and Illinois in the days before they held their primaries.

Buchanan was Trump avant la lettre. He was the first to proclaim that Republicans should wage a culture war against liberalism, the first to say that Republicans should wave the banner of economic nationalism by opposing NAFTA, and later, the first to argue that Republicans should support the then-new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, because Putin was anti-gay just as they should be. Buchanan lost the Republican nomination that year to Bob Dole, but he routinely won about a third of the primary vote, chiefly from the party’s blue-collar members.

On one memorable (to me, at least) day near Bay City, Michigan, Buchanan met informally with a group of disgruntled autoworkers (all of them white), excoriating NAFTA and assuring them that a Buchanan administration would restore the rule of white Christian nationalism. When I spoke with a number of the workers after Pat had spoken, the only way I could even get them to talk to me, a member of the much-hated media, was to begin by affirming their rejection of NAFTA, which I likewise rejected as a pro-labor social democrat. That accomplished, I sat back while they spewed their hatred of the Blacks who ran Detroit, and of their own union, the UAW, for politically supporting the Blacks who ran Detroit.

There was nothing surprising about their rants. As far back as 1964, at the apogee of postwar liberalism and prosperity, Alabama’s segregationist Gov. George Wallace, running in Democratic primaries against incumbent Lyndon Johnson, won 34 percent of the vote in Wisconsin and 30 percent in Indiana. (Michigan didn’t have a primary that year; they were not yet a common practice.) By no means did all those votes come from working-class Democrats, much less union members, but a significant share of them did. What Buchanan and Trump have done was to tap into racist fears and loathings that have persisted for a very long time.

The following day, Buchanan visited a union hall on Chicago’s Southwest Side, for he had actually won that local union’s endorsement. It was a local of the highest-paid construction workers, the Operating Engineers, and it was, to all appearances (based on who was in the hall and the photos of local members on the walls) an all-white local. The local’s president had sufficient discretionary income that he’d gone on multiple African safaris, which he made clear to the visiting press by inviting us into his office, which was adorned with the stuffed animals he’d shot and killed there, including a baby giraffe.

This local did have a specific labor-law ask for Pat: that he oppose legislation that would have made “right to work” the law of the land, rather than something left to the discretion of individual states. Pat, a tactical federalist, said he was OK with their stance.

But back to Bay City the previous day, where Pat had followed his meeting with the autoworkers with a speech in a rundown local auditorium. The event almost completely prefigured the Trump rallies that came two decades later. In the crowd were a number of men wearing military fatigues, including one who stood at attention in the front row of the balcony throughout the entirety of Buchanan’s talk. When the press corps traveling with Buchanan entered, we were reviled and subjected to the same verbal threats that have become commonplace today.

The only part of the event that I’ve never seen repeated in the Trump years came when the local Buchanan campaign leader rose to introduce Pat. Looking almost as gaunt and crazed as John Carradine in The Grapes of Wrath, he began by saying, “The problem is socialism.” Except he said it in German. This prompted the Buchanan staffers in the room, who up to that point hadn’t appeared to be paying attention to anything, to rush to one another in the sudden fear that a swastika might momentarily be unfurled. (It wasn’t.)

That’s one reason why I won’t be in Michigan with Trump today. Been there, done that.

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