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Why Republicans Are Salivating Over the UAW Strike

Is a backlash to electric cars brewing in a key Democratic voting block?

An elephant and voters.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Do Republicans have a chance to steal some voters from the Democrats?

Conservative intellectuals and elected officials are looking at the United Auto Workers strike against the “Big Three” American automakers as an opportunity to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party and its contested working class support. While the UAW is striking over typical labor issues like pay, hours, pensions and health care, lurking in the background are the electric vehicle transition and the Inflation Reduction Act, two pillars of President Biden’s time in the White House.

Although the UAW’s leadership repeatedly insists that it supports auto electrification, it has been a persistent critic of how the Biden administration has carried it out, citing the flow of subsidies going to operations that set up shop in Southern states where workers are typically not unionized. While the IRA’s subsidies have rules that encourage unionized construction labor, they typically lack the same requirements for manufacturing workers.

Conservatives looking to consolidate and expand working class support, especially in the Midwest, see the strike as a chance to appeal to union members and take shots at the Biden administration’s climate policy.

“I support the UAW’s demand for higher wages, but there is a 6,000-pound elephant in the room: the premature transition to electric vehicles,” J.D. Vance, the Republican senator from Ohio, tweeted on Wednesday. “While EV supply chains are still heavily concentrated in China, the Biden administration sends billions to that industry every year. While most Americans want to drive a gas-powered car, the Biden administration pursues a policy explicitly designed to increase the cost of gas.”

That Vance has picked up this mantle is unsurprising. He has made a concerted effort to portray himself as more attuned to working class concerns than is typical for Republican elected officials. Though organized labor supported his opponent Tim Ryan in the 2022 Senate race, Vance still cast himself as friendly to unions — or at least its members.

Getting in on the action has been Josh Hawley, the Republican senator from Missouri who has also made populist moves on economic policy. “Every dime the auto industry is spending on Joe Biden’s radical climate mandates should be spent on workers. They deserve better wages, better hours, and a guarantee their jobs will be safe — not shipped off to China,” he tweeted Friday.

And Donald Trump, who according to Edison Research exit polls won the union household vote in Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2020, thundered on Truth Social: “The all Electric Car is a disaster for both the United Auto Workers and the American Consumer. They will all be built in China and, they are too expensive, don’t go far enough, take too long to charge, and pose various dangers under certain atmospheric conditions. If this happens, the United Auto workers will be wiped out, along with all other auto workers in the United States.”

Conservative intellectuals who are trying to realign the movement towards the working class picked up the baton.

“The current UAW situation is an interesting and I think quite compelling and relevant case study in this broader trend in American politics that goes under the heading of ‘realignment’ where the agenda of the left, the Democratic Party, progressives just does not take into consideration the interests of workers, the working class, working families,” Oren Cass, founder of the think tank American Compass, told me.

Michael Lind wrote in the heterodox conservative journalCompact earlier this week that “As a pro-labor president, Joe Biden easily defeats Donald Trump,” but, he argued “Trump’s hopes for returning to the White House may depend on his ability to persuade manufacturing workers in Wisconsin and other Midwestern industrial states that, in spite of the anti-union record of his earlier administration, he will protect their jobs and livelihoods not only from foreign competition but also from Democratic environmental policies.”

Now, don’t expect UAW president Shawn Fain and the leadership to be sharing stages with Trump or Vance anytime soon — Fain has described a potential second Trump term as a “disaster.” But Republicans are picking at a scab that Democrats, environmentalists, and unions have spent years trying to mend.

The issue is that much of the green industry is not unionized and likely won’t be soon. The bestselling electric vehicles, namely Teslas, are made by non-union workforces, while other EV startups and foreign automakers who have set up shop in the United States tend not to be unionized either.

Many of the components of the green transition — especially solar panels and batteries — are made in the highest volume and at the lowest price in China. Where auto companies have set up battery joint ventures or are planning to, they are not always unionized and sometimes pay wages much lower than what autoworkers in traditional auto plants earn.

And lurking over all of this is BYD, the Chinese car company that is by some measures the biggest seller of electric vehicles in the world, and is already posing a mortal threat to the European auto industry with its low cost electric vehicles.

The UAW’s president Shawn Fain has bluntly said that he fears that “if the IRA continues to bring sweatshops and a continued race to the bottom it will be a tragedy.” Unlike most of the union movement, the UAW has pointedly withheld its endorsement of Biden’s re-election campaign.

The Biden administration and its defenders have countered that the Inflation Reduction Act was designed to buttress American workers, creating resilient, secure supply chains that create good jobs for a broad swathe of Americans across the country. And the law continuously leans on companies to set up shop in the United States and use union or higher wage labor in construction and American-made steel and other components. And if and when workers at auto or battery plants want to organize, they’ll have a friendly National Labor Relations Board to oversee it, thanks to Biden.

Meanwhile, conservatives smell blood. They argue the Biden administration is selling out the Democrats’ traditional working class base for the sake of a green agenda that tends to be supported by more well educated and higher income voters.

“If you truly believe that fighting climate change is the most important thing, you can do that and argue for it,” Cass told me. “But you can’t make a rational case that that’s the priority and say you’re standing up for the American worker. They’re being directly called on that in this dispute.”

Matthew Zeitlin profile image

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine. Read More

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