Heather Cox Richardson
Two major stories today seem to bring together both the past and the future of the country to chart a way forward.
The first involves a historic workers’ strike. A week ago, on Friday, September 15, after workers’ four-year contracts expired, the United Auto Workers union declared a limited and targeted work stoppage in which about 13,000 workers walked off the job at three Midwestern auto plants. For the first time in history, those walkouts included all three major automakers: workers left a General Motors plant in Missouri, a Stellantis (which includes Chrysler) plant in Ohio, and a Ford plant in Michigan.
Workers accepted major concessions in 2007, when it appeared that auto manufacturers would go under. They agreed to accept a two-tier pay system in which workers hired after 2007 would have lower pay and worse benefits than those hired before 2007. But then the industry recovered, and automakers’ profits skyrocketed: Ford, for example, made more than $10 billion in profits in 2022.
Automakers’ chief executive officers’ pay has soared—GM CEO Mary Barra made almost $29 million in 2022—but workers’ wages and benefits have not. Barra, for example, makes 362 times the median GM employee’s paycheck, while autoworkers’ pay has fallen behind inflation by 19%.
The new UAW president, Shawn Fain, ran on a promise to demand a rollback of the 2007 concessions in this summer’s contract negotiations. He wants a cap on temporary workers, pay increases of more than 40% to match the salary increases of the CEOs, a 32-hour workweek, cost of living adjustments, and an elimination of the tier system.
But his position is not just about autoworkers; it is about all U.S. workers. “Our fight is not just for ourselves but for every worker who is being undervalued, for every retiree who’s given their all and feels forgotten, and for every future worker who deserves a fair chance at a prosperous life,” Fain said. “[W]e are all fed up of living in a world that values profits over people. We’re all fed up with seeing the rich get richer while the rest of us continue to just scrape by. We’re all fed up with corporate greed. And together, we’re going to fight to change it.”
Fain has withheld an endorsement for President Biden out of concern that the transition to electric vehicles, which are easier to build than gas-powered vehicles, will hurt union jobs, and out of anger that the administration has offered incentives to non-union plants. That criticism created an opening for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to announce he would visit Detroit next week to show autoworkers that he has “always had their back,” in hopes of winning back the support of Rust Belt states.
But for all his talk of being pro-worker, Trump recently attacked Fain, saying “The autoworkers are being sold down the river by their leadership, and their leadership should endorse Trump.” Autoworkers note that Trump and the justices he put on the Supreme Court have been anti-union, and that he packed the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees labor laws and union elections, with officials who reduced the power of workers to organize. Before he left office, Trump tried to burrow ten anti-labor activists into the Federal Service Impasses Panel, the panel in charge of resolving disputes between unions and federal agencies when they cannot resolve issues in negotiations.
Fain recently said: “Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers.”
President Biden prides himself on his pro-union credentials, and as soon as he took office, he fired Trump’s burrowed employees, prompting the head of the union representing 700,000 federal employees to thank Biden for his attempt to “restore basic fairness for federal workers.” He said, “The outgoing panel, appointed by the previous administration and stacked with transparently biased union-busters, was notorious for ignoring the law to gut workplace rights and further an extreme political agenda.”
Today, in the absence of a deal, the UAW expanded the strike to dozens more plants, and in a Facebook live stream, Fain invited “everyone who supports our cause to join us on the picket line from our friends and families all the way up to the president of the United States.” Biden has generally expressed support for the UAW, saying that the automakers should share their record profits with their workers, but Fain rebuffed the president’s offer to send Labor Secretary Julie Su and White House senior advisor Gene Sperling to help with negotiations.
Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and John Fetterman (D-PA) have both visited Michigan to meet with UAW workers, but it was nonetheless a surprise when the White House announced that the president will travel on Tuesday to Michigan, where he will, as he posted on X, “join the picket line and stand in solidarity with the men and women of UAW as they fight for a fair share of the value they helped create. It’s time for a win-win agreement that keeps American auto manufacturing thriving with well-paid UAW jobs.”
If President Biden is showing his support for the strong unions of the past, Vice President Kamala Harris is in charge of the future. The White House today announced the establishment of a National Office of Gun Violence Prevention, to be overseen by the vice president.
Lately, Harris has been taking the lead in embracing change and appealing to younger voters. On September 9 she hosted a celebration honoring the 50th anniversary of hip hop, and she is currently in the midst of a tour of college campuses to urge young people to vote. She has been the administration’s leading voice on issues of reproductive rights and equality before the law, issues at the top of concerns of young Americans. Now adding gun safety to that list, she is picking up yet another issue crucially important to young people.
When 26-year-old Representative Maxwell Frost (D-FL) introduced the president today, he said that he got involved in politics because he “didn’t want to get shot in school.”
If the president and the vice president today seemed to represent the past and the future to carry the country forward, the present was also in the news today, and that story was about corruption and the parties’ different approaches to it.
ProPublica has published yet another piece about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s connections to wealthy donors. Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski reported that Thomas attended at least two donor summits hosted by the Koch family, acting as a fundraising draw for the Koch network, but did not disclose the flights he accepted, which should have been considered gifts, or the hospitality associated with the trips. His appearances were coordinated with the help of Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, who has been behind the court’s rightward swing.
The Koch family network funds a wide range of right-wing political causes. It has had interests in a number of cases before the Supreme Court during Thomas’s term, including an upcoming challenge to the government’s ability to regulate businesses—a principle the Koch enterprises oppose.
Republicans have been defending Thomas’s behavior since these stories began to surface.
Also in the corruption file today is Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who, along with his wife, has been indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on three counts of conspiracy to commit bribery, conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, and conspiracy to commit extortion in connection with using his influence to advance the interests of Egypt.
This is Menendez’s second legal go-round: in 2015 he was indicted on unrelated charges of bribery, trading political help for expensive plane flights and luxury vacations. Ten of the twelve members of the jury did not agree with the other two that he was guilty and after the hung jury meant a mistrial, the Department of Justice declined to retry the case.
That the DOJ has indicted Menendez again on new charges undercuts Republicans’ insistence that the department has been weaponized to operate against them alone. And while Menendez insists he will fight the charges, he has lost his position at the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the rules of the Democratic Conference, and New Jersey Democratic leaders have already called on him to resign.
“So a Democratic Senator is indicted on serious charges, and no Democrats attacking the Justice Department, no Democrats attacking the prosecutors, no Democrats calling for an investigation of the prosecution, and no Democrats calling to defund the Justice Department,” wrote former Republican representative from Illinois and now anti-Trump activist Joe Walsh.