Biden, Trump and Shawn Fain’s UAW


KOKOMO — A year after U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly played an advocacy role with President Obama in preventing the collapse of General Motors and Chrysler, he ended up at a plant gate in the final days of his 2010 reelection bid.

Donnelly found that some UAW workers at the Chrysler plant wouldn’t look him in the eye. Some would vote Republican on the issue of guns or abortion. “One guy at the gate said, ‘I love you, Joe, I’m not voting for ya, but I love ya.’” Donnelly laughed. “And I said, ‘This could be a rough Tuesday.’”

Donnelly narrowly won, but the unmistakable trend was the UAW constituency trending Republican.

Ten years later, in the 2020 election, Republican Donald Trump carried Howard County (home to GM and Stellantis plants in Kokomo) with 65% of the vote to President Biden’s 33%, up from 63% in 2016. In Allen County (GM at Fort Wayne), in 2020, it was Trump 55%-43% over Biden. In Lawrence County (GM at Bedford), Trump carried it with 74%. In Grant County (GM at Marion), Trump won with 68%.

That political battle continued played out in the 2024 presidential race this past week. UAW President Shawn Fain, who began his career as an electrician at the Chrysler Kokomo Casting Plant, endorsed President Biden for reelection. It was a nod that had been coveted by Trump, the probable Republican nominee after his caucus and primary wins in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“In 2008, 2009, the economic recession, Donald Trump blamed the workers for what was wrong with these companies,” Fain said on Wednesday. “In 2015, he talked about doing a rotation of good-paying jobs in the Midwest, somewhere where they pay less and have people begging for their jobs back at lower wages. In ‘19, when Volkswagen workers voted to organize, he put an LRB (Labor Relations Board) in place that killed the contract for those workers. He told workers at Lordstown Assembly Plant, which was closing, ‘Don’t sell your houses,’ and then he did nothing to support them.”

Fain pointed out that last year Biden went to Belvidere, Ill., when the Stellantis plant was scheduled to close. “He stood with those workers,” Fain said. “He helped us save a community, and helped bring not one plant but two plants back to life.”

U.S. Rep. Jim Banks, the Republican who has done more to shift the GOP away from the Wall Street/county club set to a more blue collar base, tweeted on Wednesday, “More proof big union bosses don’t represent their rank and file members well; who will overwhelmingly vote for Donald Trump.”

As chair of the U.S. House Republican Study Committee, Banks oversaw the forging of a memo seeking that political realignment. “President Trump gave the Republican Party a political gift: We are now the party supported by most working-class voters. The question is whether Republicans reject that gift or unwrap it and permanently become the Party of the Working Class.”

Banks observed both parties “are undergoing coalitional transformations.”

Fain was a UAW insurgent, taking control of the union in March 2021. He then led the UAW on a risky confrontation strategy with Ford, GM and Stellantis last autumn, resulting in a six-week strike. When the dust settled, the agreement brought UAW rank and file an immediate 11% raise, 14% more through 2028, while ending the wage tier system for newer workers.

“I thought it was a grand slam,” Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations told CNN Business. “They got massive increases for newer workers. For the existing workforce it was extremely good, better than I would have imagined.”

Fain is now targeting non-union auto plants at Honda, Toyota, Subaru, Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes. “This is a movement from the [nonunion] workers, not the UAW,” Fain said in December.

Fain addressed Trump saying, “Donald Trump is a scab. Donald Trump is a billionaire and that is who he represents. If Donald Trump ever worked in an auto plant, he wouldn’t be a UAW member, he would be a company man trying to squeeze the American worker.”

Last September, with Michigan and Wisconsin hanging in the balance of their coming 2024 rematch, President Biden and Donald Trump made overt plays for UAW support. Biden joined a UAW picket line in Belleville near Detroit. “We saved them; it’s about time for them to step up for us. Wall Street didn’t build the country. The middle class built the country, and unions built the middle class.”

Trump campaigned at Drake Enterprises, a non-union auto parts plant north of Detroit a day later. “Your head man, Shawn, he’s a good man,” Trump said, apparently not understanding there were only a handful of UAW members in the crowd. “But he’s got to endorse Trump. I will not allow, under any circumstances, the American auto industry to die. I want it to thrive. Get your union leaders to endorse me, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

Trump criticized Biden’s advocacy for electric vehicles, saying the Democrat was “waging war on the U.S. auto industry” through crippling green “mandates.”

In 1953, General Motors CEO Charles Wilson famously said, “As GM goes, so goes the nation.”

In a Biden-Trump rematch, that could be rephrased: “As UAW goes, as Michigan goes ....”


Brian Howey is senior writer and columnist for Howey Politics Indiana/State Affairs. Find Howey on Facebook and X @hwypol.