This article is part of HuffPost’s bi-weekly political bulletin. Click here to subscribe.
Not all of Donald Trump’s big news this week was related to indictments.
Thursday, the former president distributed a video and statement about the auto industry – specifically, how he intends to save it from what he says is President Joe Biden’s negligence. The missive covered a lot of ground, including how, according to Trump, Biden’s inability to control inflation and crack down on his trading partners has disadvantaged U.S. automakers.
But the thrust of the message was an attack on Biden’s support for electric vehicles.
Biden and his Democratic allies have touted that support, particularly through grants that were part of last year’s Cut Inflation Act, as one of their greatest accomplishments — not just as a way to tackle climate change, but as a way to jump-start America’s manufacturing base and the jobs that go with it.
The first signs are promising. There has been a dramatic leap in the industry investment and announcements of new factoriesincluding four new battery factories In Michigan only. Each of these facilities has the potential to create thousands of jobs directly, and many more indirectly, from parts suppliers to nearby restaurants. (Line workers have to eat, after all.)
Companies across the country are “expanding factories, building new ones, creating tens of thousands of well-paying jobs, most of which don’t require a four-year degree,” the president said in a recent speech touting “Bidenomics.”
But the transition to EVs also depends on the Americans buy the vehicles. The market is fluctuating, as new markets do, and after months of rising sales, there are now signs of a slowdown. Trump’s statement on Thursday seized on one such report to argue that the promotion of electric vehicles, which also includes higher gas mileage standards, is pushing companies to produce cars that consumers don’t really want and can’t afford, even with the subsidies.
“Joe Biden is waging war on America’s auto industry with a series of crippling mandates designed to force Americans to buy expensive electric cars, even as thousands of electric cars pile up in parking lots, all unsold,” Trump said. “This ridiculous Green New Deal crusade is skyrocketing car prices while setting the stage for the destruction of American auto production.”
Tump foreshadowed this argument during a speech to Michigan supporters last month, when he predicted the electric vehicle push would “decimate” the auto industry so tied to the state’s history and culture – and noted that some of the newly planned factories are partnerships with China-linked companies. “The push for all electric cars is killing America, it’s killing Michigan, and it’s a total vote for China,” Trump said at the time.
It’s not hard to see why this argument would play well in MAGA circles, where fuel-efficient electric vehicles have become a symbol of cultural liberalism and the threat from China is particularly heavy. It’s also fair to be skeptical that the argument will resonate with other voters, who may care more about climate change or appreciate the ability to spend less money on gasoline.
But there was one final politically critical element to Trump’s attack: a claim that transitioning to electric vehicle production will mean fewer jobs overall or lower wages for autoworkers.
This argument has the potential to reach a wider group of voters, especially if they hear a version of it from someone else – someone they trust. And that’s exactly what happened this week, when United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain visited Washington.
The UAW entered the conversation
Fain has only been in office for a few months, following close elections where members were able to directly choose leadership for the first time. Fain’s main promise was to take a more aggressive stance toward automakers and, if need be, to exercise greater independence from traditional Democratic Party allies.
The UAW is now heading into negotiations for new contracts with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (the European conglomerate that owns Chrysler), and the future of electric vehicle production is probably the biggest bone of contention. The union is particularly concerned about new battery plants that automakers plan to jointly operate with foreign companies that have technical capabilities that Americans still lack.
The Big Three have said they do not want the union contracts at these factories to be part of the same “umbrella agreements” that cover workers at existing factories that the companies run on their own. The UAW leadership sees this insistence as an attempt to circumvent the terms of existing contracts and weaken the unions’ bargaining power, and they say they need more support from the White House.
The union said it was detention an endorsement from Biden at this time, and Fain was particularly angry last month after the Biden administration signed a $9.2 billion loan for a Ford partnership plant, without first securing pay and terms agreements.
“We have been absolutely clear that the shift to electric motor jobs, battery production and other electric vehicle manufacturing cannot become a race to the bottom,” Fain said. “Not only is the federal government not using its power to reverse the tide, but it is actively funding the race to the bottom with billions of dollars in public money.”
White House officials responded by emphasizing their support for the union and its goals, and highlighting what is arguably the most pro-Labour record of any president in half a century. This includes clear public statements defending the right to organize, as well as pushing to link green energy subsidies to high labor standards.
White House officials also note that the only reason the electric vehicle subsidy requirements aren’t even tougher is that there haven’t been enough votes in Congress to support them. Even so, they say, Biden is using what influence he has to push for what he and the unions call a “just transition” to electric vehicles, where new jobs treat workers as well as existing ones.
“The laws don’t contain all the legal tools we would have liked,” Celeste Drake, the National Economic Council’s deputy director for labor issues, told me. “But … (Biden) is out there using the bully pulpit and talking about how corporate America is better off if they use union labor. He explains his expectations for the creation of quality jobs, including the free and fair choice to join a union. »
“He’s really using every tool available … to put his thumb in the balance for a just transition for workers,” Drake said.
One reason to take those vows seriously: Biden vowed to apply similar pressure on rail carriers who refused to grant workers sick leave last year. Rail carriers eventually surrendered and accepted a few sick days, earning hire railroad unions who had previously criticized Biden.
Another reason to take those vows seriously: Fain’s trip to Washington included a visit to the White House and a meeting with Biden himself.
Labor don’t like Trump
Despite the public tension, Fain and other UAW leaders have made it clear that they are not engaging in the Republican war on electric vehicles — nor are they about to support Trump, for that matter. Fain has previously said in an open letter that he thinks “another Donald Trump presidency would be a disaster,” and he also conveyed this privately, according to multiple sources.
Rep. Debbie Dingell, the veteran Michigan Democrat who knows the state and its labor politics as well as anyone, says she thinks such skepticism of Trump is widespread because working people remember how little he did for them as president.
“Most workers aren’t going to believe he’s going to fight for them every day, or try to get higher wages or fight for their benefits or the things they’re going to be looking for in contracts,” Dingell told me. “What workers are looking for is someone who truly understands them, which is what Joe Biden does, who will fight for them as people and individuals, as Joe Biden will.”
But, Dingell added, “the challenge for the administration for the next few months is actually to make sure that workers see this – and that they address some of the concerns of workers.”
It seems virtually certain that the UAW will ultimately endorse Biden. But there’s still the potential for a lukewarm endorsement, which could mean fewer boots on the ground in support of Biden’s campaign — and less public validation for what Biden says about electric vehicles, the economy and jobs.
The ultimate impact could be low. But even tiny swings in public opinion can make a big difference in states like Michigan, as Trump once proved.