President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, the current frontrunners of the 2024 presidential race, held competing events with auto workers this week: President Biden joined striking members of the UAW on the picket line on Tuesday, while President Trump addressed nonunion auto workers in Detroit on Wednesday. These dueling events provided a glimpse into a fierce competition brewing between Democrats and Republicans for the votes of union and union-adjacent voters—which is not surprising, given that recent polling clearly indicates that the majority of the American people support unions. When it comes to the current ongoing labor battle between the UAW and the auto companies, a Gallup poll found three in four Americans siding with the auto workers.
Yet the political competition to gain the support of workers amounts to little beyond gamesmanship by the two political parties, a superficial show that may not yield any material gains for working-class people. Those gains should they see any will be the direct result of their own actions challenging the corporations that their labor helped make profitable and demanding that their contributions are reflected in better wages, work conditions and benefits.
In other words, the political spectacle of Democrats and Republicans fighting for the working-class vote will not yield anything tangible for workers fighting for their livelihoods. Only the power of the workers themselves—the power of the people through organized labor and action—will save the future of the American working class.
No doubt, the GOP is trying for a rebrand on this front. Republicans have traditionally scorned unions—a disdain which was on full display during the second GOP presidential debate, which took place at the same time as Trump’s address. The candidates on the stage tried to cast themselves as supporters of workers and haters of union bosses.
It was farcical, the level of cognitive dissonance stunning: How in the hell can you call yourself “for workers” and at the same time not see that the combination of factors that delivered us to this land of the lost? How can you posture as pro-worker and not condemn the things Republicans would never call out, like corporate greed, or the faulty public policy pushed by a corporatist agenda that created the current conditions in the first place?
Yet Democrats, too, have become corporatized, failing in their stated mission to be the beacons of light for the working class. Decades of trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA have helped to erode most of the foundational heft of the middle class.
As we move beyond spectacle (I hope!) to substance, the real lesson of this week’s competing political photo ops with workers is not so much about the future of the Democrats or Republicans, of Biden or Trump. It is about the future of unions. And the future of unions is indelibly linked to the future of all working people.
During this moment of “Solidarity Summer,” the UAW is making it known that they will not continue to stand idly by while their members and other working class people are crushed by the weight of corporate greed and political indifference.
Last Friday, I had the opportunity to talk to UAW Local 573 members at the Streetsboro, Ohio parts plant as they walked off the job and onto the picket line. As the cacophony of workers from all backgrounds chanted, lifted picket signs, and steadied themselves for this fight, it was clear that they had a deep understanding of the assignment. My conversation with Mike Kalman, the president of Local 573, illuminated why they fight and what is at stake. “As we go, the middle class gets lifted,” he told me. “We are not asking for millionaire pay; we are asking for our fair share.”
There it is.
I suspect that “Solidarity Summer” will morph into the other seasons as the house of labor refuses to accept the status quo and battles for the economic viability of working people. In their own way, they are working to secure a human rights economy and that is worth fighting for.
The Honorable Nina Turner is a former Ohio State Senator. In 2016 and 2020, she served as a national surrogate and national co-chair for Senator Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns. Currently, she is a Senior Fellow at The Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at the New School. She is a contributor to the highly anticipated anthology, Wake Up: Black Women and the Future of Democracy due for release in 2024.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.