Harold Meyerson writes in The American Prospect about an emerging phenomena in the GOP as it tries to court white workers in the industrial Midwest.
Looks like Tim Scott didn’t get the memo.
The South Carolina senator, who’s currently seeking the Republican presidential nomination, responded to a question about the United Auto Workers strike by citing what he said was the lesson of Ronald Reagan’s firing of federal air traffic controllers. “You strike, you’re fired,” Scott proclaimed.
Scott’s diktat missed a few technicalities, including that autoworkers aren’t federal employees and are protected by law from being fired for striking. (Somewhat mischievously, the UAW filed an unfair labor practice complaint against Scott, saying that as an employer of his presidential campaign staff, his remarks could be seen as intimidating the rights of his campaign workers to organize.)
More interesting, though, is how Scott’s automatic hostility to strikers is at odds with the more ambivalent views of a number of his fellow Republicans.
Donald Trump will meet later this week with Midwestern current and former autoworkers and other blue-collar workers, not to defend the strike as such, but to claim that his opposition to electric vehicles (and to the Democrats’ support for them) makes him their true champion. Two of Scott’s fellow Republican senators have weighed in to support some of the striking workers’ demands, though not the UAW per se. Missouri’s Josh Hawley has tweeted, “Auto workers deserve a raise—and they deserve to have their jobs protected from Joe Biden’s stupid climate mandates.” Ohio’s J.D. Vance has written, “I support the UAW’s demand for higher wages,” but added that the union should also demand that Biden cease all federal support for electric cars.
Does that make Vance and Hawley pro-union? Not hardly. Hawley was a vociferous opponent of the 2018 Missouri referendum, which state voters passed handily, to strike down the Republican legislature’s enactment of a right-to-work law. Vance is the protégé of union-loathing libertarian Peter Thiel. Both senators have consistently opposed the PRO Act (a bill that would put some teeth into labor law), as well as Biden’s nominations of such pro-worker advocates as Julie Su at the Department of Labor and Jennifer Abruzzo and Gwynne Wilcox at the National Labor Relations Board.
Still, they’re not echoing Tim Scott, and this variation is largely a function of political geography. Ohio and Missouri were both longtime union strongholds, and still have a share of their white working-class electorate that either is or was unionized. Recently, Ohio battery plant workers overwhelmingly voted to join the UAW at Ultium Cells, a joint venture of GM and LG Energy Solution—the kind of facility that the union hopes to organize in the transition to electric vehicles, which is one of the causes for which it’s striking.
Scott’s South Carolina is not now nor has it ever been a state where unions could gain even the slightest toehold; today, it ranks dead last among the 50 states for its rate of unionization (1.7 percent). Never mind federal law; in South Carolina they fire workers for just thinking about unions.
The various states’ racial composition of their unionized workforces is a factor here, too. Of all the states that were both heavily industrialized and had a substantial blue-collar union presence, Ohio has the highest percentage of white working-class residents, and Missouri’s not far behind. When Vance and Hawley say they back autoworkers’ demands for higher pay, they are, in effect, preaching to a choir of white workers, as well as some workers of color, who have been turning Republican in response to the party’s attacks on the Democrats’ alleged “wokeness.”
Trump is attempting his own version of that: not yet saying the workers deserve raises but at least positioning himself as their anti-EV champion. In 2024, he will need to carry such Midwestern states as Michigan and Wisconsin, which he lost to Biden after winning them in 2016.
There’s a larger emerging dynamic here. In 2016 and 2020, Trump ran as a socially conservative white nationalist, but also by vowing not to cut Social Security or Medicare. That set the template for some of today’s Republican Party. Having transformed the white working class into its electoral base by its opposition to immigration, greater racial and gender equity, and a host of associated issues, the Republicans also gained an electoral base that both needed a raise and feared a reduction in Social Security and Medicare coverage. In places like the once-industrial Midwest, though decidedly not in the South or Mountain West, Republicans are being compelled to address economic demands they had long neglected or, more commonly, opposed.
Read the rest of the piece at The American Prospect here.