The UAW has a long record of wielding major influence in presidential elections. The union this year has not yet endorsed a candidate, according to UAW President Dennis Williams, who President Barack Obama acknowledged during a January visit to Detroit had played an important role in his own political career and his quest for the presidency.
Williams rules out support for Donald Trump during the Republican primary season, even though the business mogul and reality television star’s views on trade between the U.S. and major trading partners such as Mexico and China differ little from the position staked out by the UAW’s executive board over the years.
“We need real trade agreements,” Williams recently told reporters at UAW headquarters in Detroit, but added he is not in favor of Trump’s solution.
The union wants nothing to do with Trump, Williams says, because the GOP presidential contender is hostile to unions.
“Mr. Trump made a comment that infuriated me. He made a comment that he would not allow companies to move to Mexico. Then he turned around and said he’d ask them to move their facilities to states with cheaper labor.
“That doesn't fly with me. I don’t think Mr. Trump has articulated about where he’s been or where he is going,” the union leader says.
Reagan's Reuther Assist
The UAW’s endorsement is sought by Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders despite the steep decline in membership since the 1980s, when union President Doug Fraser's support for Sen. Ted Kennedy helped undermine incumbent fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter’s re-election contest with Ronald Reagan.
Fraser, while acknowledging Carter’s support for the Chrysler loan guarantees that saved thousands of jobs, was angered by the president’s disinclination to support the single-payer health-care system long cherished by the union, according to author Kevin Boyle.
History also dictates a certain deference to the UAW’s opinion inside the Democratic Party.
In The Making of the President 1960, Theodore White’s famous book about the contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, then-UAW President Walter Reuther played a critical role in delivering the Democratic nomination to Kennedy. In White’s subsequent book about the 1964 election, Lyndon Johnson asked Reuther to recommend a running mate and Reuther recommended Sen. Hubert Humphrey, a longtime ally of organized labor, for vice president.
Former Reuther aide Paul Schrade recounted in a 2015 interview that Reuther and Kennedy first met at the Democratic convention in 1956 when the Massachusetts Senator was quietly campaigning for the vice presidency. Reuther made no promises to Kennedy but told the Senator he needed to improve his record on labor-related issues.
In 1968, as the Vietnam War raged, Reuther was torn between his loyalty to his old ally Humphrey and pressure from colleagues asking him to support the antiwar platform of New York Sen. Robert Kennedy.
Those colleagues included Schrade, by then a member of the UAW’s executive board in charge of its West Coast region and a prominent antiwar activist. The final showdown never came as Kennedy was assassinated in a hotel kitchen moments after winning the California primary. Schrade, who was standing next to Kennedy, was shot in the head and seriously wounded in the fusillade of bullets that killed the senator. Schrade survived but went through a long convalescence.
Kennedy had won the primary thanks to an outpouring of votes from Hispanics throughout California where the UAW had been supporting the organizing efforts of Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers. The campaign had reached out to the Hispanic barrios of East Los Angeles, Schrade recounted during an interview with WardsAuto.
In 1976, the UAW leadership, eager to see a Democrat in the White House, wholeheartedly supported Carter, who named union President Leonard Woodcock the first U.S. ambassador to China since the end of Chinese Civil War in 1949.
Union leaders remain undecided this year even with the approach of critical primaries in industrial states such as Michigan and Ohio, which hold elections March 8 and March 15, respectively.
Williams says he isn’t sure the UAW will make an endorsement before any of the Midwestern primaries: “There is nothing wrong with the great debate going on this country. There is a lot of good subject matter being discussed. We want to do our due diligence.
“UAW members do enjoy the fact they have a voice,” he says. “We are going through our process right now and we’re surveying our members. I think right now people are conflicted. People are really watching with great interest what both (Democratic) candidates are saying.
“We know both candidates very well,” Williams says. “The feeling among the leadership is we will continue watching.”
Michigan Goes Blue, More or Less
Clinton has made a point of visiting Flint, once a union stronghold, to promise help for the impoverished city that has been the center of scandal over lead contamination of the city water system. Sanders also has visited Flint and held a well-publicized rally at UAW Local 600 in Dearborn, MI, near Ford’s Rouge complex.
During the Sanders rally, Local 600 President Bernie Ricke was careful to note the union had not endorsed a presidential candidate even as he praised the Vermont senator for his commitment to issues such as single-payer health care.
While the positions Sanders has staked out during his campaign appeals to a number of union members and retirees, others have hung back; the crowd at the Dearborn rally illustrated some of the fault lines. The number of African-Americans in the crowd of about 700 was relatively small, reflecting a skepticism in the black community that extends to African-American union leaders.
In 2000, the UAW waited until August to make an endorsement, prompting speculation then-union President Steve Yokich was dissatisfied with the Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore, and the Clinton administration’s environmental and trade policies. Yokich ultimately said endorsing Green Party candidate Ralph Nader would not help the union cause and the UAW fully supported Gore all the way through the bitter Florida recount.
Despite the best efforts of Williams, then a regional UAW director in Illinois and Iowa and an early Obama supporter, the union remained neutral in the 2008 Democratic contest between the Illinois Senator and Hillary Clinton, who also courted UAW support.
Obama won the union’s support after securing the nomination.
"After a historic primary campaign which activated and mobilized millions of voters, our union is proud to endorse Sen. Barack Obama," said then-UAW President Ron Gettelfinger. "He has inspired our country with a positive vision.”