The United Auto Workers Rejected Trump. Members Aren’t So Sure

As the ex-president attempts to play on Rust Belt anxieties about the transition to electric vehicles, many remain wary of Biden’s record

The United Auto Workers Rejected Trump. Members Aren’t So Sure
A Trump campaign event in September 2023 at Drake Enterprises, an automotive parts manufacturer in the suburbs of Detroit. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The plane flies in wide, easy circles over Drake Enterprises, a manufacturing plant in the Detroit suburbs. The pilot, presumably, cannot see the many middle fingers held aloft in the parking lot below or the woman who mimics shooting the aircraft out of the sky. The banner the plane is towing bears a simple message: “Trump Sold Us Out.”

It’s the last Wednesday in September, and Donald Trump is heading to Drake, which makes engine parts, to address participants in a historic strike by the United Auto Workers (UAW), one of the most influential unions in the country. This, at least, is what Trump would like you to believe. In fact, the event will take place inside a nonunionized factory roughly 48 miles from the nearest picket line.

So far, I’m not seeing a lot of red UAW shirts waiting to get into this purportedly union-heavy event. I’m not seeing a lot of anyone, really. At 2 p.m., hours before the doors are set to open, only about 40 people stand in line with me. The lack of people is unusual for a Trump event, though the crowd is typical: men and women, mostly in their 50s and 60s, decked out in MAGA baseball caps and T-shirts. Several shirts feature Trump’s mug shot with the caption “Wanted: For President.” I chat with the woman in front of me in line, who asks if I too had been in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. She is not an autoworker.

As we wait, a cameraman from a far-right TV station sets up at the front of the line and gestures us into his shot. “Real America’s Voice tells the truth!” an anchor for the station shouts to the crowd as the Trump supporters squish together behind him, creating the illusion of an enormous gathering. I maneuver toward the edge of the frame. “Wait till I give you the signal,” the anchor says. “All right, let’s get fired up! MAGA energy!”

Trump was an anti-union businessman turned anti-union president at the head of an anti-union party. He passed measures to limit the right of union workers to hand out leaflets and hold meetings on company property while softening penalties for union-busting, among other moves. His tax bill even made union dues nondeductible. Trump’s hopes of returning to the White House, however, rely on appealing to union voters. His 2016 victory depended on upsets in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania; in 2020, these states swung back to blue. Since then, there has been a resurgence of organized labor. From successful unionization efforts at Amazon and Starbucks to strikes by the Screen Actors Guild, United Parcel Service and now the UAW, workers are demanding better pay and conditions. Public support for unions is at 67%, higher than at any time since 1965.

Joe Biden should be positioned to take advantage of this trend. Unlike Trump, he has vowed to be “the most pro-union president in American history.” He has passed reforms that make it more difficult for corporations to undermine unions and worked to undo Trump’s damage to collective bargaining rights. Biden also beat Trump to the picket line in Detroit — and he went to an actual autoworkers’ picket line, becoming the first sitting president to make such a gesture during his own event a day earlier.

The journalists who had filled Motor City hotels for Biden’s event would soon pivot to mostly credulous coverage of Trump’s purported union address, with descriptions of a crowd largely composed of union members and autoworkers. Yet the UAW workers I had talked to during my own visit to Detroit were largely indifferent to the theatrics. Some had told me they planned to vote for Biden, others for Trump, while still others had said that both candidates disgusted them. All understood that Trump is anti-union. For the Trump voters, though, the former president had already managed to sow distrust in Biden on other issues, tapping into worker anxiety about the government-subsidized transition from combustion engines to electric vehicles that the president is spearheading, along with broader fears about the border, fentanyl and foreign policy. The upcoming speech at Drake would be a test drive of Trump’s attempts to present himself as a candidate for the working class to sympathetic voters outside the union, while also delivering a message intended to resonate with its members. Could this be enough to turn the Rust Belt red again?

Over the next two hours outside Drake Enterprises, the line grows steadily, though not by enough to fill the advertised 300 seats. I’m not on the list, which is invite-only, but I am in line, and 15 minutes before start time an event worker offers me and other hopeful party-crashers a way to get in: a sign that reads “Auto Workers for Trump.” I wait, awkwardly clutching the glossy cardboard until the gate opens. I show my sign to a muscle-bound private security guard, and he lets me pass.

As the seats inside the factory fill up, I see plenty of dress shirts, slacks and electric-blue tees from Drake Enterprises, perhaps because they are excited to see the former president speak, perhaps because their boss, Drake President Nathan Stemple, is a wealthy Trump supporter. Even after the event fills up, though, I count fewer than 10 people wearing the red UAW shirt. All are eventually herded into the two rows of bleachers behind the podium where Trump will speak. They fill only about half of one set of bleachers, so event workers seem to be selecting the most normal-looking people they can find to occupy the rest. A sinewy middle-aged man wearing a red “Auto Workers for Trump” shirt gives interview after interview to the pack of journalists behind a banner-festooned barricade.

As I wait in another long line — this one for free food-cart pizza with a sign that says “Paid for by Donald J. Trump!” — I strike up a conversation with the man behind me. “Are you UAW?” I ask.

The man looks perplexed. “What’s UAW?”

Founded in 1935, the UAW has 400,000 members, making it one of the largest unions in the country. Yet after its peak in the 1970s, it grew timid and anemic because of a combination of anti-union legislation, outsourcing and corruption scandals among UAW leadership. In 2008, as the Big Three automakers — Ford, General Motors and Chrysler (now Stellantis) — faced bankruptcy during the Great Recession, the UAW agreed to enormous concessions to help cut costs, trying to help the companies make a case to the government for billions in bailout money. Workers sacrificed their guaranteed annual cost-of-living pay increase, agreed to a 10-year wage freeze, and accepted a health insurance policy with much higher out-of-pocket costs. The union also undermined future workers by agreeing to a two-tiered wage system. Existing union employees kept their pay scale, but new hires would receive no pensions, no bonuses and radically lower wages. Before the agreement, new hires started at $28 per hour. Afterward, the starting wage dropped to $14 per hour. The agreement also changed rules surrounding overtime, which allowed manufacturers to schedule longer mandatory shifts and eliminate the eight-hour workday that unions had fought for decades to obtain.

Two bankruptcies and billions in federal aid later, the Big Three have not only recovered but surged into a record-breaking period of prosperity. The manufacturers reported a 92% increase in profits from 2013 to 2022. During that time, Ford, GM and Stellantis have spent $66 billion on stock buybacks, which funneled profits into the pockets of shareholders and executives. CEOs and other executives enjoyed massive raises and obscene bonuses. Mary Barra, CEO of GM, earned $29 million last year, an almost 40% increase from her 2019 salary. Yet the Big Three never restored the cost-of-living adjustment or made up for the money workers lost when they agreed to their decadelong wage freeze. The tiered wage system continues to make it difficult for anyone hired in the last 15 years to achieve the middle-class lifestyle once guaranteed by the UAW. The results are worse than stagnant: Real wages for autoworkers have decreased by almost 20% from 2008 levels. A generation of autoworkers has watched the American dream slip further from reach with every passing year.

In March 2023, a union firebrand named Shawn Fain narrowly won the first direct elections for UAW president in its history, then started working on his main campaign promise — to reverse the 2008 concessions. He immediately began to pursue record wage and benefit increases for UAW members. When the Big Three called his demands impossible, he livestreamed himself throwing their proposed contract in the trash. On Sept. 15, 13,000 workers at three factories — from Ford, GM and Stellantis — put down their tools and walked out. The strategy was to strike at just a few locations initially, then gradually expand to others during the negotiating process. By the time I arrived in Detroit later that month, it encompassed 41 sites and 18,600 workers and showed no signs of slowing down, attracting massive national media attention.

Joe Biden, the first sitting U.S. president to join a picket line, addresses striking members of the United Auto Workers at a plant outside Detroit in September. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

A day before Trump’s speech at Drake, Biden landed at Willow Run airport, just south of Detroit, and headed to the picket line at a small, unionized GM plant nestled in a nearby tree line. Looking unusually spry in a blue sweater and black UAW baseball cap, he briefly addressed about 20 striking workers, all in UAW red, assembled in front of TV cameras.

“Wall Street didn’t build the country,” the president said. “The middle class built this country, and unions built the middle class. You deserve what you’ve earned — and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now.” He walked down the line of workers, first shaking hands, then bumping fists as his security team gently encouraged him to move quickly through the small crowd. His entire appearance lasted 15 minutes.

The next day, I headed to a Ford plant in the suburb of Wayne, where picket lines of 10 to 20 people covered a mile-long area to block every gate into the 3,300-worker facility. The line skewed white and male, but included several women and people of color as well. It was one of the original three factories where workers had launched the strike. Drivers blared their horns in support as cars raced along a nearby highway. As I made my way through the crowd, a poster caught my attention: a caricature-style drawing of Biden standing in front of a picket line. The person holding it, Ramez Khuri, a slim, fit man who looked to be in his 30s, has worked on the Ford assembly line for a decade. He had hoped the president would visit Wayne.

“I’m behind Joe Biden 100%,” Khuri told me. “I’m pretty sure he’s been the most union-friendly president we’ve ever had.”

Most of the others on the picket line seemed less keen on Biden, and when I asked about the dueling candidate visits, the most common response was a shrug. The strike isn’t about politics, many said. But if the strike wasn’t political, I wondered, then what was it? Finally, I passed someone in the crowd who seemed eager to talk with me: Randy Miller, a wiry man in his early 50s with a neatly trimmed white beard, an intense gaze, and nearly three decades of frustration with a union he says was spineless and crooked until Fain took over. “I’ve had nothing but garbage my entire life, and now you get this guy stepping up,” he told me. “Shawn Fain has wielded power not seen for the working class in quite some time.”

Fain’s strategy had inspired Miller, a Bernie Sanders supporter who reluctantly voted for Biden in 2020. This election, he prefers Cornel West, the progressive scholar running as an independent, in part because he doesn’t see much difference between Trump and Biden on labor issues. “Every president has betrayed the working class since Ronald Reagan,” he said with disgust. Miller is pragmatic — he will grudgingly vote for the incumbent again if West doesn’t gain traction. But if this is the level of enthusiasm Biden is generating among even his 2020 union voters, he might be in trouble.

The president appointed a union member to serve as secretary of labor, the first time this has happened since the Reagan administration. In his first week in office, Biden reversed Trump’s executive orders that undermined some federal workers’ collective bargaining power and left them more vulnerable to unjust firings. He has pushed for a law that would strengthen penalties for corporate retaliation against organizing workers, prohibit businesses from firing those who go on strike and mandate binding arbitration if a company and a union cannot agree on an initial contract. And while Trump stacked the National Labor Relations Board with anti-union members who made it more difficult for workers to organize, Biden’s board is working to roll back those measures.

Most of these changes, however, have been piecemeal, Miller said: “You can do small, incremental change and still serve the donors.”

But there are other parts of Biden’s political history that Miller and other workers have not forgotten. Biden has a long history of supporting free-trade initiatives that experts at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, say have cost America millions of manufacturing jobs, contributed to stagnant wages and widened the wealth gap. As a senator in 1993, he backed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which lifted trade barriers between the United States, Canada and Mexico. Not only did NAFTA result in massive job losses, it also gave corporations a new cudgel to use in union negotiations: Settle for less or we’re moving to Mexico.

In 2000, Biden supported the normalization of trade relations with China, which led to Beijing joining the World Trade Organization a year later. With trade barriers down between the two economic giants, U.S. corporations could more easily outsource operations to China and benefit from its cheap labor. For many American workers, this proved even more disastrous than NAFTA; experts from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimate that it cost America 1 million manufacturing jobs and 2.4 million jobs total. Then, as vice president, Biden backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement that would have lowered trade barriers between the United States and 19 other countries, particularly in Asia. The UAW came out strongly against the agreement, which they believed would be similarly disastrous for labor. As Miller put it, “Joe Biden was against us before he was for us.”

Miller’s longtime friend and co-worker Lance Bryan, a stocky man in his 50s, was also unimpressed with Biden’s visit to Detroit.

“I think it was a show,” he said. “It was election time for him.” Bryan plans to vote for Trump.

Trump, he acknowledges, is not pro-union. But the real estate mogul has earned his vote for a variety of reasons, and some have to do with trade. One of his first acts as president in 2017 was to withdraw the United States from the TPP. Then, during his reelection bid in 2020, Trump followed through on another long-standing promise and replaced NAFTA with a new agreement, backed by labor unions and many Democrats, that required a $16 minimum wage for some autoworkers and strengthened labor law enforcement between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

A new election year means Trump needs a new working-class policy pitch. For the 2024 campaign, he has shifted his attention to a different type of multinational effort with real stakes for American manufacturing: the green transition.

At the beginning of the strike, many analysts believed the UAW had no chance of winning. Fain, 55, saw things differently. “The billionaires and company executives think us autoworkers are just dumb,” the father of two boomed in one of his livestreamed updates in October, wearing a T-shirt that said “Eat the Rich” and punctuating his sentences with his fist against a wooden lectern. “But us autoworkers know better. We may be foul-mouthed, but we’re strategic. We may get fired up, but we’re disciplined. And we may get rowdy, but we’re organized!”

Less than a month into the strike, Fain’s strategy was already working. Ford had initially offered a 9% pay raise. They were now up to 23%. His ambitions, however, extended to something broader than pay raises: locking down the union’s long-term future in a rapidly changing world. The workers on the picket lines build cars and trucks that run on gasoline and diesel, but the Biden administration has called for two-thirds of all new cars to be electric by 2032, an enormous increase from their 6.5% market share today. To help auto manufacturers make the transition, Biden’s signature bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, created $5 billion in subsidies for domestic development and production of electric vehicles. It also offers billions of dollars in tax credits to both people who buy EVs and companies that make them. But it offers no firm guarantees to workers about how this change will affect their jobs.

Electric vehicles require different parts — charging ports instead of gas tanks, batteries instead of combustion engines — and different parts require new factories. As the Big Three spin up battery plants and EV assembly lines with help from Biden’s incentives, they have a unique opportunity to gut the union by building those new factories in places where it is difficult or unfeasible to organize. Since EV manufacturing is not explicitly included in the UAW’s master contract, these new plants are nonunion by default. In theory, workers at these plants could vote to join the UAW, but many manufacturers are taking their new operations to Southern states such as Tennessee and South Carolina, where “right to work” laws make union organizing nearly impossible (though Fain has vowed to try). If the trend continues, not only will the UAW be unable to negotiate on behalf of EV workers, but the union’s numbers will dwindle until it has little leverage even for the workers it continues to represent.

Trump doesn’t talk much about these jobs moving south or the danger it poses to the UAW, perhaps because he is in favor of it. (Back in 2015, he advised auto manufacturers to lower their personnel costs by relocating to these states.) Instead, he says EVs will destroy the auto industry and threaten American prosperity. He offers a barrage of justifications for this: EVs will lead to outsourcing and a net loss of jobs; there’s not enough demand for them; they are too expensive to ever be profitable; electric batteries are actually terrible for the environment (and the people who mine the materials required to build them); a lack of charging stations makes distance trips impossible; the power grid couldn’t handle the demand for so many charging stations anyway; and electric semitrucks will massively disrupt supply chains.

Not all of Trump’s claims are true, but there’s enough truth in them to resonate with at least some workers. Though California, not the Biden administration, is behind a push to replace diesel semis with electric trucks by 2040, because the state is so big it could wind up changing the policies for most of the country. Perhaps such a shift will be feasible by then, but with current levels of technology electric semi batteries can weigh as much as 16,000 pounds. Trucks have strict weight limits in the United States; adding this much weight significantly cuts down how much freight the truck can carry and could exacerbate supply chain issues.

Trump is right that electric batteries currently depend on unethically sourced heavy metals — the lithium for the batteries that power our electric vehicles (and cell phones) currently comes from Chinese mines that devastate the environment, and the cobalt largely comes from the labor of exploited children in the Congo. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act attempts to solve this issue by requiring that at least 40% of EV battery materials, by cost, are either extracted from or processed by America or a free trade partner. This requirement will increase every year until it hits 100% in 2029. The act also subsidizes research into batteries that are easier to recycle. As written, however, unethically sourced minerals may still qualify for the tax credit if processed in America, and whether the United States will develop more recyclable batteries by 2032 remains to be seen.

High prices coupled with lack of demand plague today’s electric vehicle market. The government is trying to bring down the cost by heavily subsidizing EV manufacturing. Once manufacturers produce more vehicles, costs per vehicle will plummet — but only if demand becomes high enough to get those additional cars off lots and into garages. Dealers are having trouble even with current EV production rates, though; demand is not keeping pace with increasing supply, and EVs sit on lots for nearly twice as long as their combustion engine counterparts.

Many buyers are hesitant to go electric due to a lack of charging stations. The solution to this problem is clear, and Biden is already on it: His 2021 infrastructure bill set aside $7.5 billion to build new charging ports and $100 million to repair existing, faulty ones. The White House recently allocated $3.5 billion to improve the electric grid so it can handle increased demand from these chargers. Yet it’s difficult for Americans to imagine rapid changes to infrastructure. California has experienced rolling blackouts for years. Electric grids have been neglected for decades. Our bridges are falling apart. Perhaps Biden’s historic infrastructure bill will turn it all around in time for 2032, but people are understandably skeptical.

Trump’s claims about job losses stem from the fact that electric vehicles require far fewer unique parts, which could be mass-produced anywhere. The Inflation Reduction Act offers significant tax credits to consumers who buy cars manufactured from parts made in America, which may be enough to offset the advantages of cheap foreign labor. The assumption that fewer unique parts mean fewer workers is understandable, but likely untrue: Carnegie Mellon researchers found that EVs require more labor hours than combustion vehicles. However, those jobs may not stay in Rust Belt factory towns, and without retraining programs, factory workers may not be able to secure positions at an EV plant even if they uproot their lives. What difference does a net gain in jobs make to an assembly-line worker if they lose their existing one and cannot get another?

Concern over the EV transition may help explain why the Trump voters I met on the UAW picket line seemed largely willing to overlook his anti-union history. While they often listed the usual reasons for supporting him — the border, foreign policy, the 2020 election “fraud” — they also echoed his concerns about whether this transition to EVs would prove even more devastating than NAFTA or TPP. “I believe him that they were trying to move our products and our powers to different countries,” Corina Carrow, a Trump supporter who was picketing at the Ford plant in Wayne, told me. “He says we’re going to lose our jobs if [the EV transition] continues, and he’s right.”

A worker at Drake Enterprises before the Trump campaign event in September. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Yet going backward is impossible. David Foster, an associate at the Energy Futures Initiative, who spent 16 years as a regional director of the United Steelworkers union, said that the EV transition is central to combating the climate crisis, since automobiles make up the largest source of greenhouse emissions in many countries, including the U.S. But it is also a matter of economics. Europe is buying electric vehicles at nearly twice the rate of the United States, and in China, which represents well over a third of the global automobile market, 22% of all cars sold in 2022 were electric. That number will likely continue to rise. “U.S.-based companies — particularly GM, Ford, and Stellantis — have no choice but to climb on board if they want to continue to be players in the global industry,” Foster told me. “GM sells more cars in China than it does in the United States. You very quickly realize that they had little choice.”

We do have a choice in how that transition plays out, however, and Foster, who was also a senior advisor in the Department of Energy during the Obama administration, is concerned about our current path. “I do wish that there was a much stronger effort to try to look at the communities that may get left behind as a result of this transition,” he said. “To me, that is where industrial transition historically has failed in this country.”

But that trend may be changing. In early November, the UAW announced that GM and Ford’s new battery plants would fall under the union contract. Ford agreed to allow union factory workers to transfer to new facilities in Tennessee. Stellantis reversed its decision on idling an Illinois factory and built a battery plant in the same town that will add over 1,000 jobs. All three have committed to keeping more jobs in the Rust Belt by converting existing factories into EV assembly lines instead of rebuilding them in the South. Fain has extracted concessions from Biden as well, getting the president to set aside $2 billion in grants and $10 billion in loans for auto companies that convert existing union plants into EV plants, rather than build new ones elsewhere.

The UAW endorsed Biden last month, which came as no surprise. Fain had previously made it clear he would not even consider endorsing Trump. “I see no point in meeting with him, because I don’t think the man has any bit of care about what our workers stand for,” he told CNN hours after his appearance with Biden at the picket line in Detroit. “He serves a billionaire class, and that’s what’s wrong with this country.”

Trump and Fain both understand why workers in the Rust Belt are wary of the shift to EVs, and promise to do something about it. But while Fain supports the transition and is trying to make sure the union is included in it, Trump portrays it as an apocalyptic event — and bills his election in 2024 as the only chance to stop it.

The Club Canton bar is a squat wooden building surrounded by a gravel parking lot near the Ford plant in Wayne. Half of the lot had been cordoned off by string and reserved for the striking workers, but it was almost empty on a Wednesday night at 11 p.m. Inside, the cavernous honky-tonk was full of long wooden tables for drinking with friends after work, a couple of pool tables, a small stage and a large dance floor. Dollar bills were stuck to the ceiling and tchotchkes lined the walls. A man and a woman, sitting apart, were the only other people at the wooden bar. Two other men were singing karaoke to no one. I sat alone at the bar and ordered a beer. The mirror across from me was covered with pictures of patrons, bartenders, and a large “Thank You” card. Above it hung a wooden sign: “The drinking will continue until the economy improves.”

I took a swig of Corona and remembered a conversation I’d had the previous day with a retired UAW member on the Ford picket line. “Everybody’s losing money right now,” he had said. “These restaurants and gas stations are crying like sissies. When they’re not coming to work, they’re not stopping [to eat or fuel up].” He shook his head. “They’re saying it’s worse than when it was COVID.”

Looking around at all the empty tables, it was easy to imagine the Rust Belt towns where the factories had closed forever. The city of Flint, 60 miles to the north, now infamous for its poisonous water and poverty, had once flourished as a GM manufacturing hub. At the height of its prosperity in the late 1970s, over 80,000 area residents worked in GM factories. By 2015, there were just 7,000 GM workers in Flint, and the once-proud company town had earned the nickname of “Murder City.” Similar transformations have befallen old union strongholds across the Midwest, from Youngstown, Ohio to Gary, Indiana.

If the Ford plant down the road, which makes gas-guzzling Broncos and Rangers, were to close and reemerge as an EV factory in Tennessee, the emptiness of this bar would become permanent, and the city around it would fall into decay. That’s the fear of Miller, the Cornel West-supporting UAW member, and Bryan, his Trump-supporting friend. The two have known each other since grade school. When we discussed the strike, we were joined by Jodi Moore Lee, another of Miller’s longtime friends. They had been trained together at the same Ford plant almost 30 years ago. Lee’s daughter had recently started working there as well, which made her daughter a fifth-generation Ford worker, Lee told me. “Our dads worked together, our kids work together, we work together,” she said. “It’s a family thing. And Will Ford knows that, and he’ll come to his senses.”

Almost everyone I talked to on the picket line had at least one relative who worked at the plant with them, and they expressed real pride in their jobs. “I know my dad was proud when he got me in here,” Lee said. “And I knew that I was set for life. And I’d like to see that for the next generation.” This relationship with work is hard for most Americans to fathom. Over a third of people in the U.S. are in the gig economy, which offers little stability or benefits. Even the people lucky enough to have salaried jobs only keep them for around four years on average. Meanwhile, many Americans are suffering from what the surgeon general called an “epidemic of loneliness” in a 2021 health advisory. Surveys cited in the advisory found that half of Americans have just three or fewer close friends, and that only 16% felt “very attached to their local community.”

The UAW went on strike for something far greater than anything either candidate seems likely to deliver: a guaranteed, comfortable, multi-generational, middle-class life in exchange for old-fashioned hard work. And that transcends politics for friends like Bryan, Miller and Lee. “I don’t think Donald Trump is special,” Bryan said. “Not supporting the union, wanting to lower our wages. I just think that’s the Republicans in general.”

Lee, who plans to vote for Trump, likewise seemed unenthused. “They’re all probably scumbags,” she told me. “We need a single mom that’s making it in the world.”

“We’re on the same page, regardless of political ideology,” Miller chimed in. “I’m very proud to stand with these two. Their political views have nothing to do with this fight.”

I heard the same sentiment many times on the picket line: The struggle is not political. What they meant, it seemed, is that the strike is not polarized. It does not fit neatly with today’s politics of fear. There is no worker’s party, no candidate who speaks for them or offers more than a promise to protect them from the other guy. Instead, they have union leaders like Fain and Sean O’Brien, the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters who negotiated a record-breaking contract with UPS in August. They have Chris Smalls, who unionized Amazon, and Fran Drescher of SAG-AFTRA, and Chris Keyser and David Goodman with the Writer’s Guild of America, and countless other union organizers clawing back wages and benefits after decades of concessions and failures.

One month after Biden’s historic picket line visit, the UAW and Ford agreed on a tentative contract. Three days later, the union accepted a contract offer from Stellantis; two days after that, GM too reached an agreement with the UAW, and the strike ended. Workers at all three corporations will receive a 25% raise, annual cost-of-living increases, a $5,000 ratification bonus and improved pension plans. The two-tiered wage system is dead: Many workers will see their hourly wages skyrocket from $18 to $35 once the contracts are signed.

In just six weeks, Fain and the UAW did more than just secure a massive pay increase and restored benefits. “You can feel the rhetoric has changed. The winds have changed,” Miller told me on the picket line. For the first time in a long time, the public is behind the unions. And in an era of extreme polarization, thousands of regular people from across the political spectrum have come together to fight for something: not a time-travel fantasy, or important but intangible bureaucratic tweaks, or even anxiety over what might happen to America if the other party wins, but big improvements that make their lives better and easier. But, as Miller repeatedly pointed out, that progress hinges on the ability of union workers to resist the politics of fear and division. “Because we have Trump and Biden supporters together,” he told me, “is why we’re gonna fuck ’em up.”

By 8 p.m. the seats inside Drake Enterprises are full. Factory president Nathan Stemple wanders the floor to greet employees and affluent people in the crowd while a blond child sits on his shoulders and cheerfully waves a “Union Members for Trump” sign. A large, bearded man stands guard by the double doors through which Trump will eventually enter. His black shirt reads, “Trump vs Everybody.”

Soon, the familiar first notes of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” wash over the crowd, and Trump appears, slowly walking past the handful of UAW members in the bleachers so the cameras can linger. A middle-aged woman two rows ahead of me stands atop her folding chair, screams the former president’s name, totters, stumbles, then runs to the front, giddy as a school kid. Trump takes the podium and gazes at the audience with his trademark strained, lips-pressed-together almost-smile. It looks bizarre on TV but reads, in person, as heartfelt gratitude for all this adulation. “There’s no such thing as a fair transition to the end of your way of life. You’re going to lose your beautiful way of life,” Trump says. “I don’t need to tell anyone in this room what the globalists and trade abusers did to the people of Michigan. You’ve seen the lives wrecked. You’ve seen your family destroyed. In many cases, the families have been shattered and the communities battered, brutalized, destroyed economically and by crime.”

Despite a few rambling stories, the speech is one of the most focused I have ever seen from Trump in three years of covering him. Far from praising the strike, he claims that it is a distraction from the existential threat of a transition away from internal combustion vehicles. “If your union leaders will not demand that crooked Joe repeal his electric vehicle mandate immediately, then it doesn’t matter what hourly wage you get,” he says. “I watch you out there with the pickets, but I don’t think you’re picketing for the right thing.”

If UAW leadership didn’t endorse Trump, he added, “all they’re doing is committing suicide.”

For the former president to maintain a stranglehold of fear on autoworkers, he must convince them that any gains from the strike will be ephemeral. In Trump’s world, there can only be one savior: himself. “The Wall Street predators, the Chinese cheaters and the corrupt politicians have hurt you,” he says. “I will make you better. Very simple. I will make you better.”

The speech is a sledgehammer mix of fact and fiction aimed primarily at those watching on TV. The people around me, I realize, are disposable accessories. They’re necessary for the illusion Trump wants to create: that of the people’s president, the protector of the working class. Union members may be underrepresented in this audience, but they are paying attention. If my conversations on the picket line are any indication, he is reaching at least some of them.

“With me as your president,” Trump concludes, “our opponents will lose, and our American workers will be the biggest winner of them all.” The crowd leaps to its feet and chants “Four more years!” Trump basks in the applause, then awkwardly pumps his arm in the air, which only makes them cheer more loudly.

I walk out of the factory and into a battering rain. Rally-goers hold their signs over their heads as they sprint to their cars, but I tuck mine beneath my coat, a memento of my brief tenure as a fake autoworker. I climb into my rental sedan and flick on the wipers as fast as they can go — but it is still nearly impossible to see the road ahead.

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