Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
During a good news week, with more evidence of slowing inflation and a potential soft landing for the economy, President Joe Biden finds himself right in the middle of contentious contract negotiations between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the “Big Three” American automakers: Ford, General Motors and Stellantis North America, formerly Chrysler.
UAW President Shawn Fain is promising that he will remain aggressive in these negotiations and use every tool at his disposal to achieve victory. He has threatened that his 150,000 workers will strike if necessary. “This is our defining moment,” Fain announced Tuesday.
His union has withheld an endorsement for Biden in the upcoming 2024 election until the president offers clarity on what kind of support he will provide for workers dealing with the potentially detrimental labor impact of the shift to building electric vehicles (EVs).
Biden has spent much of his term harking back to the period from the 1930s to the 1960s when Democratic presidents, starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt, put themselves squarely on the side of organized labor. His efforts to combat inflation sidetracked some of this focus as prices became of increasing concern.
Now the president faces a different kind of challenge. The contract negotiations pit two of his major imperatives against one another — his effort to vastly expand the production of electric vehicles and his struggle to strengthen unions.
The “car guy”
A self-described “car guy,” the Corvette-owning Biden secured passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which funnels billions of dollars into subsidizing the production of electric vehicles and charging stations. “The great American road trip is going to be fully electrified,” he promised at the Detroit Auto Show last September.
“These investments are also tools — tools to fight against climate change: building cars with zero tailpipe pollution, running on a cleaner grid, making and inventing the technologies that are going to power the future.”
Biden, who also promised during his campaign to be the most “pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” has been eager, since defeating former President Donald Trump, to rekindle the strong loyalties that working-class America felt for the Democratic Party after FDR got Congress to pass the Wagner Act in 1935, legislation that legitimated unions and created a National Labor Relations Board.
Biden was five years old when President Harry Truman stunned the pollsters by defeating New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, largely as a result of labor’s support. Throughout the 1970s, when Biden was in the first phase of his US Senate career, organized labor provided votes, money, organization and political muscle that allowed liberalism to become a dominant force, as the historian Nelson Lichtenstein captured brilliantly in his book, “State of the Union.”
They were even pivotal in helping build political strength for other issues, such as civil rights. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who certainly had his tensions with labor leaders such as the UAW’s Walter Reuther, still depended on the partnership to push through much of his Great Society in the 1960s. Without organized labor’s support, for instance, the nation would never have had Medicare.
Alternative to culture war
Since the 1960s, most of the right’s effort to appeal to working- and middle-class America has focused on culture war issues. By contrast, unions offer an economic appeal, striving to be the most powerful force for obtaining long-term job security, good benefits and decent wages.
But starting in the 1970s, Democrats grew increasingly distant from organized labor. The breakdown of the relationship happened for many reasons. Most important was the shrinking size of the union workforce. It had swelled to more than 30% by the post-WWII period and has fallen to about 10% in recent years, according to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
With the size of unions shrinking in the service and high-tech economy, Democrats looked elsewhere for political support, devoting more attention to issues that were not as critical to labor.
At the same time, more Democrats embraced a Reaganite vision of the economy that stressed the value of free markets and deregulation, with unions often being seen as more of a problem than a solution to the economic struggles of middle America.
In their effort to court the corporate world as well as the finance sector, Democrats distanced themselves from the concerns that had been the bread and butter of their coalition. And there were many moments in which organized labor expressed tepid feelings about Democrats, starting from the AFL-CIO’s decision not to endorse either candidate in the 1972 election — a rebuke of Democratic nominee Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota — to ongoing tensions over issues such as civil rights, immigration and free trade.
Presidents and Labor
Each Democratic president, since Johnson, has faced moments of massive tension with labor. President Jimmy Carter perceived unions as one more entrenched interest group that had been part of the formula that led to the rise of an America led by President Richard Nixon.
Carter, according to adviser Stuart Eizenstat, “saw unions as just another interest group.” He added, “They did not have a special call on his heartstrings.” Carter supported deregulation in numerous economic sectors and was lukewarm, at best, toward legislation being demanded by unions.
President Bill Clinton raised the ire of labor leaders by moving forward with the NAFTA free trade agreement since they feared that jobs would go to Mexico and, with Republicans in control of Congress, declared in his 1996 State of the Union Address that the “era of big government is over.”
President Barack Obama, the most progressive of the three, refused to push for the “card check” bill that labor was supporting in 2009, which would make it easier for unions to secure new members, and the White House backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that many unions feared would result in job losses to companies overseas.
While Republican presidents since Ronald Reagan have spent immense energy attacking unions, New York Times reporter David Leonhardt wrote earlier this year, “Modern Democratic politicians, on the other hand, have often sat out the political battle. Every Democratic president for decades, including Joe Biden, has said he favors a federal law to make it easier for workers to organize — and each of those presidents has failed to pass such a law.”
Democrats can’t afford to alienate labor. Traditional manufacturing unions remain an extremely powerful force in the Democratic coalition, even if they are not what they once were. In key swing states such as Michigan, Democrats ignore unions at their own peril.
Newer unions in sectors such as health care have been extremely vibrant in recent years, attracting younger workers who have little experience with the union tradition even in their own families. High-profile strikes, such as the ongoing labor stoppage by the Screenwriters Guild of America, have drawn strong support and can become rallying points against the exploitation that many Americans perceive in the current economy.
During his first two years as president, Biden followed through on his promise to back labor. He pushed for legislation that helped organized labor, including the pandemic relief package that offered financial assistance to union pension funds. The administration created incentives for companies to hire unionized workers in Biden’s legislation on infrastructure and manufacturing. On the first Labor Day that he celebrated from the Oval Office, Biden called unions essential to “counter corporate power, to grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out.”
A balancing act
In the coming weeks, the administration needs to figure out how Biden can bring together his environmental and labor goals. At a moment when the vote of working-class Americans will be pivotal in determining the outcome of the 2024 presidential election, Biden must continue to demonstrate his support. At the same time, it is vital that he not backtrack on his enormous push to deal with climate change, where new forms of transportation have been central to the goal of drastically cutting carbon emissions.
Of course, the tensions between environmentalism and labor are nothing new. Democrats have been balancing these two constituencies since the 1960s, weighing the imperative of curbing environmental damage against the threat of job loss. Republicans have loved to exploit these fault lines, as Trump did in 2016 and 2020 by pitting anti-fracking activists against blue collar workers.
As much as this balancing act poses a challenge to Biden, it also offers an opportunity for him to demonstrate that green jobs and good jobs can go hand in hand.
The key will be for the administration to respond to UAW concerns about new EV battery factories. Given the enormous subsidies that the companies are receiving, labor leaders are insisting that the people who will be building the batteries and cars should receive union protection and representation.
Secretary of Energy and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has tried to assure the UAW that the president can square the circle. Actually doing that will fall on the shoulders of Biden senior adviser Gene Sperling, who will be the point person for the White House in the UAW negotiations.
Should the effort succeed, the payoff could be huge. If Biden can show that labor and environmentalism are compatible, it will spread benefits all around and energize these constituencies for the 2024 election.
If the effort fails, an administration already struggling with low approval ratings will be dealing with yet more disappointment and frustration within Democrats’ ranks, right as Republicans ramp up their effort to win back control of the White House.