Trump stabbed labor over and over. Now he says he supports striking auto workers?

<span>Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Strikes are painful affairs for unions and companies alike, but that hasn’t stopped Donald Trump from making plans to go to Detroit next week to try to make political hay out of the United Auto Workers’ historic strike. The former president is planning a prime-time speech before 500 union members that will trumpet the message that he has “always had their back”.

As with so many Trump pronouncements, that is appalling poppycock. During Trump’s four years as president, he and his administration did far more to stab workers in their backs.

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Trump didn’t lift a finger to increase the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at a pathetically low $7.25 an hour since 2009. And he certainly didn’t have workers’ backs when he scrapped Barack Obama’s move to expand overtime coverage, thereby denying 8 million workers the ability to receive time-and-a-half overtime pay.

If Trump is a friend of workers, why did his administration repeatedly do what corporate lobbyists asked for instead of what worker advocates wanted? Trump made it easier for Wall Street to cheat workers by scrapping the “fiduciary” rule that required investment firms to act in the best interests of workers and retirees in handling their 401ks. Showing little concern about worker safety, Trump moved to relax rules for coal mine inspections and roll back safety requirements for oil rig workers. His administration even reversed the ban on a toxic pesticide, chlorpyrifos, that causes acute reactions in farmworkers and neurological damage to children.

In a big favor to corporate America, Trump rolled back rules that made it harder to award federal contracts to companies that were repeat violators of wage laws, sexual harassment laws, racial discrimination laws, or laws protecting workers’ right to unionize. Then, in a favor to financial firms, Trump repealed regulations that aimed to prevent payday lenders from preying on financially strapped workers.

Trump’s appointees were far more pro-business than pro-worker. He named a string of corporate water-carriers to the National Labor Relations Board who often seemed to see their role as undermining unions and making it harder for workers to unionize. Trump’s NLRB appointees said, for instance, that gig economy workers like Uber and Lyft drivers should be considered independent contractors, not employees, thus preventing them from unionizing under federal law.

Trump’s appointees to the supreme court have shown scant sympathy toward workers and outright hostility toward unions. Remember that Neil Gorsuch once ruled that a truck driver deserved to be fired for disobeying his boss’s order and leaving his broken-down vehicle in sub-zero weather – a move that probably saved the driver’s life. It was Gorsuch who delivered the deciding vote in the 5-4 Janus v AFSCME case – the most important anti-union decision in decades. In that ruling, the court’s rightwing majority said that teachers, firefighters and other government employees couldn’t be required to pay any dues or fees to the unions that bargained for them and won raises for them.

Related: Record auto profits should be used to address inequality and climate crisis | Shawn Fain and Ro Khanna

All this makes clear that Trump’s claim that he “always” has workers’ back is laughable. Labor leaders should issue a warning: workers of the world, unite against trump’s con.

Trump doesn’t like labor unions, but he loves the idea of union members supporting him. Indeed, Trump has repeatedly worked to undermine unions. He recently said that workers shouldn’t pay their union dues; only a person who wants to hobble unions would say such a thing. Not only that, Trump has repeatedly sought to turn union members against their leaders, a strategy that would undoubtedly weaken unions and make them less effective in pressuring powerful corporations to agree to better pay and conditions. In one divide-and-conquer statement about unions, Trump said, in a recent Meet the Press interview: “The auto workers are being sold down the river by their leadership.”

Trump also has a record of attacking labor leaders, including, most recently, the UAW president, Shawn Fain; but also Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO’s late, hugely respected president; and Dave Green, a popular UAW official in Ohio who fought to keep GM from closing its giant Lordstown plant.

While running for president in 2016, Trump sought to woo blue-collar workers by boasting that he’d enact a colossal, $1tn infrastructure plan. As president, he trumpeted one “infrastructure week” after another, but that devolved into a pathetic joke because he failed abysmally in enacting an infrastructure plan or creating the hundreds of thousands of jobs construction workers hoped for.

Trump did get Congress to pass one important piece of legislation, but it certainly wasn’t worker-friendly. It was $1.5tn in tax cuts that went overwhelmingly to corporations and the richest 1%, while giving peanuts to typical workers like the UAW members now out on strike.

Here’s more Trump poppycock: he likes nothing more than to brag that “we had the best economy ever” when he was president, something that John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and many other presidents would quarrel with. Trump won’t admit that the day he was inaugurated, the economy was already on third base, and Trump thought he had hit a triple.

Under Obama, the jobless rate fell from a peak of 10.0% to a low of 4.8% when he left office. Under Trump, the jobless rate slid from 4.8% to 3.5% (before it soared during the pandemic). Moreover job growth has been far weaker under Trump than under Biden. During Biden’s first 31 months in office, through August 2023, nonfarm payroll employment rose by 433,000 jobs a month on average. During Trump’s first 31 months, it rose by less than half that, 176,000 jobs a month (that was before the pandemic hit).

When Trump seeks to woo auto workers in his extravaganza next week in Detroit, he will undoubtedly assert yet again that electric vehicles (EVs) are bad for auto workers and are destroying jobs. At the same time, Trump will attack Biden, UAW leaders and Detroit’s automakers for not agreeing to slam the brakes on EVs. Trump has unfortunately bought into the hoax, long promoted by fossil fuel companies and rightwing interests, that the climate crisis isn’t real. The world’s automakers disagree, however; they recognize that the climate crisis is very real and very dangerous, which is part of why they’re racing to make the transition to EVs.

Related: Americans want to join unions. The supreme court doesn’t like that | Moira Donegan

Detroit’s automakers and the UAW realize that if General Motors, Ford and Stellantis pull up the rear in developing EVs, that will threaten their long-term viability along with tens of thousands of UAW jobs. Auto workers should resist Trump’s dire, demagogic warnings that the transition to EVs will be hugely dangerous for them (even though it’s true that it takes fewer workers to make an EV than an internal combustion vehicle). In the worldwide competition to produce cars, Detroit’s automakers know that embracing Trump’s anti-EV mantra and ending up in last place in developing electric vehicles could doom their future and lead to bankruptcy.

Workers shouldn’t let Trump take them for fools. When Trump tells workers he has their back, he thinks he’s a clever wolf trying to reassure a flock of sheep that he has their back.

  • Steven Greenhouse, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is a longtime American labor and workplace journalist and writer, and the author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor