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Biden believes in the power of a union.. but the Angry White Males don’t care

Unions are what Joe Biden is. But Trump tells them his rival wants to offshore their jobs to China

President Biden joins striking members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union on a picket line in Michigan. But many union members have turned their backs on the Democrats. Photo: Jim Watson/ AFP/Getty

Unions are part of the fabric of America and in many ways integral to its identity. This is partly because the idea of organised labour has always had a “the people united can never be defeated” kind of vibe. Americans like that. Like to feel that they are fighting the power.

The votes of union members used to go overwhelmingly to Democrats. That’s not a given anymore.

Why? For one thing, in 1981, president Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. Sacked them outright.

When he bothered to reply to the raging criticism, Reagan pointed out that he had fired the workers because they had violated an employment oath to the federal government. So as far as he was concerned, what they were doing was not a strike against the government as their employer but against the American people.

He managed to traumatise the entire labour movement. For decades. Even Democratic presidents tiptoed around unions, and this led to disengagement.

Yet the other week, there was Joe Biden with his bad polling numbers and his almost 80-year-old self, wielding a megaphone on a picket line and calling out General Motors, Ford and the parent company of Chrysler. The Big Three.

Joe Biden, calling for increased wages, showed that he was with the workers. There are a few dangers in aligning himself so closely with them.

Most people in the States drive to work. No cars? The effect would be devastating, damaging the economy due to its effect on the supply chain. To say the least.

And a prolonged strike would pile even more trauma and misery on to what is known as “paycheck-to-paycheck America”. Which used to be the poorest but now is just about everybody apart from the well-off.

But unions are what Joe is. He had to be there.

He told the strikers that they deserved what they were owed, and that car executives were getting a whole lot more than they were getting.

Biden’s trip to the strikers was so sensitive, so secret, that not many people aboard Air Force One knew where they were going. The political danger in the US right now is palpable.

There awaiting Biden was Michigan’s Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer, touted as a leader of the post-Biden Dems. There was Liz Shuler too, leader of the mighty AFL-CIO union, which my late father belonged to.

She said in her address after the president had landed that Biden was the most pro-union president in history and that working people know that he has their backs every single day of the year.

The change in the political climate in Michigan is astounding. It had voted Democrat in every presidential election since Bill Clinton’s first victory in 1992 until Donald Trump won the state by 0.3% from Hillary Clinton in 2016. Four years later, Biden won it by 50.6 % to Trump’s 47.8%.

But it is still a battleground, with its 15 votes in the electoral college – the 10th biggest prize in a presidential election. Which is one reason that the president came, at the invitation of the United Auto Workers union.

As John Mellencamp and Aerosmith boomed in the background, Joe stepped up to the plate in a cap and came out for the workers.

GM, the bosses, did their best to not pay attention. Their statement said that their focus was not on politics. They hoped that the UAW leadership came to their senses as quickly as possible. They warned that “nobody wins” in a strike.

Trump made his own visit to Michigan shortly after, where two people holding signs that read “union members for Trump” and “auto workers for Trump” turned out to be neither auto workers nor union members.

Trump’s history with unions is difficult.

As president, he made it difficult to enforce collective bargaining, thus removing the level playing field for workers in negotiations.

He packed the courts with anti-union judges.

Employers were given stronger powers to fire workers outright.

He made it easier for private sector unions to come into the ascendance. He took away union protections – like safety inspectors.

He set up healthcare that would discriminate against those with pre-existing conditions.

So why do so many union members back Trump? Why do so many turn their backs on Biden and his strong pro-union record?

For one thing, Don The Con tells them that Joe wants to offshore their jobs to China, for example.

And he has an important thing in his corner: the thing that fuels, quite literally, MAGA and the modern, crazy Republican Party. It is Fox News – fount of the air of toxic grievance that envelops the US now.

Roland Rexha who, at 41 is the youngest member and only Muslim on the AFL-CIO’s executive council, points out that Joe Biden still might be a hard sell going forward. That is because of the phenomenon known as the AWM: the Angry White Male.

The AWM, with its universe of rage, is the base of MAGA and the core support of Trump. Even against their traditional unions. Even against their traditional working-class values that made room for a man like my late father to be an organiser, to be a part of it.

There is not enough room in this column to list the grievances of the AWM. Their rage and fear wipe out the fact that Donald John Trump has never supported a union in any of his businesses. He has never come out for a minimum wage.

He currently is nickel-and-diming his own people – including those union members who support him – by using their donations to pay for his universe of legal troubles.

The AWM know it and they don’t care. Trump’s Georgia mugshot is a snapshot of their inner and increasingly outer rage.

And for many, that rage is more powerful than the power in a union.

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