Solidarity Forever?

Surprising things can be done by free trade unions if their leaders are willing to let a conservative join their picket line.

Sarah Rice/Getty Images
United Auto Workers members picket outside the Jeep Plant on September 18, 2023 at Toledo, Ohio. Sarah Rice/Getty Images

Far be it from us to coach the president of the United Auto Workers on how to run his union. What, though, would Walter Reuther and his brothers have made of Shawn Fain’s truculence in announcing that a president of the United States, albeit one who’s out of office, is not welcome on the picket line? Never mind that the out-of-office president is far and away the leader for the Republican nomination for president in 2024.

No sooner did word leak out that President Trump was going to skip the second Republican debate and, instead, hatching a plan to go to Detroit to meet striking autoworkers than the UAW’s president, Shawn Fain, said he wouldn’t be welcome. reported that he “blasted” Mr. Trump as an example of the “corporate greed the union is fighting against.” He decried an economy that “enriches people like Donald Trump.”

That may be Mr. Fain’s view, but during the Biden years so far, real  wages have declined — by 3.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics cited by our Larry Kudlow. Real wages had risen by seven percent during the Trump presidency, even accounting for the Covid pandemic, data from the bureau show. Plus, too, real median household income rose 16 percent under Mr. Trump, the Census Bureau reported, but has been falling under Mr. Biden.

We get that the UAW has always been a left-of-center union, even measuring the center of the labor movement. Yet it can’t blame Mr. Trump for the North American Free Trade Agreement, inked by President Clinton, that saw so much of our auto industry, and some 700,00 jobs, go south. Nor can it blame Mr. Trump for its own decision in 2009 to forgo cost-of-living adjustments in its earlier contracts, when conservatives were warning of inflation. 

So with the share of the American workforce that is organized lurking at historic lows — UAW membership is down to 400,000 from its 1979 peak of 1.5 million — what’s the logic of giving the cold shoulder to a visit to the picket lines by the possible Republican nominee? In 1962, when George Romney fetched up — uninvited — at the head of a Labor Day parade in Detroit, the upstaged union made the best of it. Romney got elected governor.

Mr. Trump for his part appears to have failed to forge a personal connection with the new UAW chief, Mr. Fain, who was elected to his post at the union’s headquarters, Solidarity House, on a vow to move the union’s advocacy in a more aggressive direction. Instead of currying favor with the new boss, our Russell Payne reports, Mr. Trump is urging UAW members “to oust Mr. Fain from his position,” contending he “isn’t doing a good job as president.” 

Even as Mr. Fain snubs Mr. Trump, the union is also choosing to “withhold its endorsement” of Mr. Biden, the New York Times has reported, in part because of his green agenda. The rank and file are another story. One of the UAW’s regional directors, David Green, told the New York Times that he would not “support any endorsement of Donald Trump,” even while conceding that the GOP candidate’s “rhetoric is contagious among our members.”

It strikes us, in any event, that the UAW — and the rest of Big Labor — need all the friends they can get. That’s often happened in the long march of labor. One moment came in 1988 when Prime Minister Thatcher of Britain visited Poland and insisted on meeting with the leader of Solidarity, Lech Walesa. The meeting took place at Gdansk, where dockworkers came out in throngs to embrace the most right-wing leader in Europe. 

Eventually, Thatcher, Solidarity, President Reagan, Lane Kirkland, and John Paul II found a partnership that won the Cold War — by driving through the beating heart of Soviet communism the stake of Free Labor. We think of the moment as a reminder that some of labor’s greatest advances have come through an alliance of strange bedfellows and that there’s little that can’t be accomplished if one is willing to let conservatives join the picket line.

The New York Sun

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