Why Isn’t Trump Helping the Autoworkers?

The president has been happy to stand up for manufacturing employees on the campaign trail, but has done conspicuously little as GM workers go on strike.

Rebecca Cook / Reuters

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

It’s a sign of the diminished role of both manufacturing and organized labor in American society that a strike by autoworkers at General Motors hasn’t been the dominant news story this week.

Still, the story should pique President Donald Trump’s interest. Many of the strikers work at factories in states that Trump carried in 2016, some of them narrowly. And their concerns—including dignified pay and benefits for blue-collar workers, and outsourcing of manufacturing overseas—match Trump talking points.

But so far, Trump has done something highly unusual during the strike: He’s mostly kept his mouth shut and avoided controversy, a choice that may reflect the tricky political stakes for him.

The White House flatly denied a Politico report today that the White House was working to reach a deal between the two sides that would be favorable to the United Auto Workers. On Sunday, the president tweeted a bland admonishment to both sides:

On Monday, speaking briefly with reporters, Trump said that “federal mediation is always possible, if that’s what they want.”

He added: “We don’t want General Motors building plants outside of this country, and we’re very strong on that. The UAW has been very good to me. The members have been very good, from the standpoint of voting. The relationship is good. Hopefully, they’re going to work that out quickly and solidly.”

Trump is right to draw a distinction between union members and the union itself, though he exaggerates the split. The union’s leaders strongly backed Hillary Clinton, as they have backed every Democratic nominee in recent history. A postelection UAW survey found that at least 28 percent of members voted for Trump, which is actually in line with votes for a previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, and behind John McCain, another former nominee.

Overall, however, Trump did better in union households (not quite the same metric) than any Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984. And he won narrowly in manufacturing-heavy midwestern states, where small shifts made a big difference. One reason for that was his strong stand against trade agreements such as NAFTA, which Hillary Clinton supported, and which her husband, Bill, implemented as president.

As a candidate and as president, Trump has pursued a two-step maneuver: Bash management and rail against offshoring and trade deals, yet at the same time pick fights with the unions themselves. Splitting workers from the unions that represent them, a powerful Democratic bloc, by convincing them that organized labor doesn’t have their best interests at heart has been a long-standing goal of the GOP—and Trump was an especially effective messenger.

Thus, Trump has been willing to assail manufacturers who move plants overseas, often with a bluntness unheard-of in any recent president of either party. As president-elect, Trump rattled business leaders by directly attacking Carrier, the air-conditioner company, over a plan to close an Indiana plant and move production to Mexico. He was able to force Carrier to stop the move. He also demanded that companies stop doing business in China, a move most of them seem to have met with a shrug. Yet he has also publicly attacked union leaders and unions through his Twitter account, and has rolled back labor protections.

The problem is that Trump’s tough talk, as in so many other arenas, hasn’t been matched by much in the way of results. Carrier, wagering correctly that Trump’s attention and political resolve would fade, simply postponed layoffs to a later date. Another example is even more relevant to the GM strike: After the company announced plans in May to close a factory in Lordstown, Ohio, Trump demanded that GM reverse the move.

Then he attacked the local UAW president, inexplicably demanding he “get his act together and produce.” A day later, he tweeted that he had spoken with GM CEO Mary Barra. “She blamed the UAW Union—I don’t care, I just want it open!” he said.

Whatever Trump said, it didn’t work. Five months later, the plant remains shuttered, and it’s a central bone of contention in the negotiations that led to the strike. (Politico’s report stated that the White House–backed deal would reopen the Lordstown plant.)

Trump’s indecisive, vacillating handling of the Lordstown closure prefigured his apparent uncertainty about how to handle the current strike. If Trump comes down too hard on the side of the union, he risks giving organized labor one of its biggest wins in decades. If he comes down on the side of GM, he risks alienating the voters across the Midwest who swung away from Democrats and toward him in 2016—in a place with very thin margins. (There are, however, paradoxical signs that a struggling midwestern economy is good news for Trump.)

In the past, management (and conservatives) have tended to write off UAW demands as outrageous extortion. But the UAW’s complaints in this case are fairly modest. The union made serious concessions following the 2008 crash to keep GM on its feet. That helped, and the company has since been making money hand over fist, even as it slashes U.S. production. The result is steeply uneven pay for workers brought in at lower wages, and a shrinking U.S. manufacturing base. And while organized labor has had a bad few decades, the strike comes at a 50-year high of popular support for unions.

There are defenses for what GM is doing: The company is making smart business moves, its long-term profitability is important, and while the workers who lost jobs in places like Lordstown may be hurting, the overall advantage evens out. A rising tide floats all boats. The problem is that this is just the rationalization that previous presidents of both parties have used. It was also the neoliberal calculus behind NAFTA.

Trump claimed to be different. He wanted companies to succeed, of course, but he wanted workers to have good-paying jobs. “You’re going to have a worker’s party,” Trump said of the GOP in 2016. “A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.”

These things are easy to say as a candidate. They’re much harder to follow through on as a Republican president—even one who has remade the party in his image. The UAW strike is the latest example of Trump’s stated views clashing with his actual impulses, leaving him with no obvious side to take.

In response to Trump’s tweets calling on the two sides to talk, a GM spokesperson told NBC News, “We couldn’t agree more.” The UAW did not respond to my request for comment on whether the union would welcome presidential intervention, nor has it responded to the tweet. Those disparate reactions seem telling about where the players in the strike expect the president to land.