By attacking the United Auto Workers and mischaracterizing the stakes of the union’s contract campaign and strike, self-styled populist Donald Trump is standing with the corporate elite against workers.

Donald Trump speaks at the Monument Leaders Rally in South Dakota, September 8, 2023. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Former president Donald Trump has an opinion on the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike against the Big Three auto manufacturers that began at midnight on Friday. Surely the self-styled populist, whose political brand rests on claiming to champion American manufacturing workers, extends his full-throated support to the union, right? Think again.

Instead, Trump framed workers’ economic fight against corporate giants Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis as a partisan skirmish, lumping the UAW in with Joe Biden. In a statement delivered late last month, Trump railed against UAW leadership, claiming, “Autoworkers are getting totally ripped off by crooked Joe Biden and also their horrendous leadership. Because these people are allowing our country to do these electric vehicles that very few people want.”

Trump even encouraged autoworkers to stop paying their union dues: “I’m telling you, you shouldn’t pay those dues because they’re selling you to hell. Don’t listen to these union people who get paid a lot of money. They get wined and dined in Washington, they know that electric cars are no good in terms of our workers.”

He ended in campaign mode by promising, “When I am president, I will deliver higher wages for autoworkers, I will protect your jobs” — odd promises to make while simultaneously voicing his opposition to the UAW’s fight for those very things.

Those comments were delivered late last month. More recently, Trump spoke with Meet the Press moderator Kristen Welker about the contract fight. When asked point-blank which side he was on, he refused to give a clear answer. “I’m on the side of making our country great,” he said. “The autoworkers are not going to have any jobs when you come right down to it because, if you take a look at what they’re doing with electric cars, electric cars are going to be made in China.”

Unable to resist redirecting the conversation back to himself, he added, “I’ll tell you what — the autoworkers are being sold out down the river by their leadership, and their leadership should endorse Trump.”

In March, a reform slate running against rampant corruption and contract concessions won the top leadership posts of the UAW. The new leadership has hit the ground running with this combative and bold contract campaign. Trump seems unaware of these recent developments, including UAW’s strategic withholding of a Biden endorsement. The union opposes the way the Inflation Reduction Act is throwing huge amounts of public subsidies to electric car manufacturers without any labor-standard stipulations. In other words, the UAW is pushing Biden on the very issues Trump claims to care about.

“The federal government is pouring billions into the electric vehicle transition, with no strings attached and no commitment to workers,” UAW president Shawn Fain wrote in a memo. “The EV transition is at serious risk of becoming a race to the bottom. We want to see national leadership have our back on this before we make any commitments.” The demand for electric vehicle production to be unionized has been fully incorporated into the present contract fight.

The auto companies have already made massive investments in domestic electric vehicle production. Trump’s framing is wrong; the question is not whether electric vehicles will be made in the United States or China — it’s whether domestic production will provide stable union jobs or precarious low-wage jobs.

The UAW has gone on the offensive and is raising other bold demands related to the electric vehicle transition. Autoworkers are seeking to protect their job security by fighting for the right to strike over plant closures and for a Working Family Protection Program where laid-off workers could get paid to do community service, blunting the effects of potential unemployment. Other demands include a 40 percent wage increase, the end of tiers, a shorter work week, and cost-of-living wage increases tied to inflation.

Taken together, the fulfillment of these demands would represent arguably the greatest victory for US autoworkers in generations. Trump has a clear choice of who to stand with: manufacturing workers or multinational corporations. The public has made its stance clear, as a recent Gallup poll showed a whopping 75 percent of Americans sympathize with autoworkers over Big Three executives.

By choosing to attack the UAW and mischaracterize the stakes, Trump is standing with the corporate elite against workers.

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