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Robin Abcarian: Think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren aren't electable? Try talking to striking GM auto workers

Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Op Eds

DETROIT -- Next to the picket line outside the Flint, Mich., GM assembly plant three days into the strike, American cars were whizzing by, drivers honking like crazy to signal their support.

Every entrance into the massive plant was blocked by strikers, furious that the sacrifices they made a decade ago to keep GM afloat are not being rewarded now that the company is on a healthy financial footing.

"GM, we invested in you," says a banner hung outside one United Auto Workers local. "Now it's your turn to invest in us!"

Democrats hoping to woo back blue-collar whites should be paying very close attention to the mood here. The presidential candidates have united behind the strikers, a good sign. President Donald Trump has offered only tepid encouragement.

"I am proud to support the @UAW workers who are standing up to the greed of GM," Bernie Sanders tweeted Sunday. "Our message to GM is a simple one: End the greed, sit down with the UAW and work out an agreement that treats your workers with the respect and the dignity they deserve."

Trump, on the other hand, seemed annoyed by the strike: "Here we go again with General Motors and the United Auto Workers. Get together and make a deal!" he tweeted Sunday, hours before the strike began. Later, he told reporters: "The UAW has been very good to me. The members have been very good, from the standpoint of voting." (It's always only about him, him, him.)

Forklift operator Eric Szecsodi, a 37-year-old father of two, was walking the picket line in Flint on Wednesday. A lifelong Democrat who voted enthusiastically for Barack Obama in 2008, he defected to Trump in 2016.

Disaffected blue-collar white men like Szecsodi helped Trump eke out a victory in Michigan over Hillary Clinton, whose campaign turned a blind eye to this important state until it was too late to make a difference. Expecting to win by 5 percentage points here, she instead lost by 0.23 points, a mere 10,704 votes.

There was also a damaging lack of enthusiasm on the part of African American voters, who stayed home in droves.

The combination proved fatal to Clinton here and in other industrial states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which were supposed to have provided her a "blue wall" of support. The blue wall was a mirage.

Though the UAW had endorsed Clinton, its president later estimated that close to 28% of his 415,000 members had voted for Trump.

Those workers still blamed Bill Clinton, and by extension, Hillary, for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which despite its good intentions had sabotaged the American working class. They liked that Trump planned to scrap it.

Trump's vows to keep American manufacturing plants from shipping jobs overseas, his insistence that dying industries like coal mining should and could be revived, were immensely appealing. They took a chance on him.

While the economy has been hopping along during Trump's administration, things have only gotten worse for GM's auto workers. The company has decided to close four major plants, including two in Michigan, as it focuses less on sedans and more on more profitable trucks and SUVs.

If Democrats can't capitalize on disparities like these, they don't deserve to win in 2020.

::

A decade ago, when GM was on the ropes, the union had agreed to cut wages, give up cost-of-living increases and create a two-tier system that allowed the company to hire new workers at much lower pay and benefit levels.

This affected workers like Szecsodi: He was hired in 2005 as a temporary worker, at $23 an hour. Two years later, his pay was reduced to $15 an hour. He has since become permanent, but he is only earning $21.50 an hour, $1.50 per hour less than he did 14 years ago.

Sacrifices like his helped GM turn around; over the last three years, the company has made $35 billion in profits. Now workers are asking for higher wages, better healthcare benefits, greater job security and a path to permanency for all those second-class temps. The company is resisting. Among other things, it wants workers to kick in more for their health insurance -- raising the 3% to 4% that workers currently pay to 15% of costs.

"We just want fair wages and compensation," said picket line captain John Hatline, a 45-year GM employee whom I met at GM's Poletown plant in Hamtramck. He noted that GM CEO Mary Barra earns more than $20 million a year. "Every day, she is earning $11,400 per hour," he said. "Our highest paid members earn $30. The lowest make $12 to $15. We've gone 10 years without a raise."

 

Like many of his colleagues, he was a fan of Sanders in 2016.

When Clinton became the nominee, he believes, many of those would-be Sanders voters defected. She was too friendly to Wall Street, too weighed down by the baggage of her husband's trade policies, and the many Clinton scandals.

"They just wanted something new," said Hatline, who voted for Clinton. "They would have voted for Bernie over Trump."

I heard echoes of this comment everywhere I stopped. Remember this when the punditocracy alleges that lefty Democratic candidates like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are too radical for the electorate.

::

Down the road and across the street from the Flint picket line, I pulled into the parking lot of UAW Local 598 and was greeted by a sign: "Foreign made automobiles are not welcome here and may be towed away at the owner's expense. Buy Union, Buy American."

These days, it's impossible to know exactly where some cars are made -- was your BMW built in South Carolina? -- so I took the sign as a slightly menacing joke. However, I was relieved that my rental car was a Ford Fusion.

The sign put me in mind of Trump's vow in 2015 that he would never eat another Oreo after Nabisco's parent company moved a factory to Mexico.

At the same time, shirts and ties from his clothing collection were being manufactured in China, Bangladesh, Honduras and Vietnam.

Perhaps this hypocrisy will haunt Trump in 2020.

::

Inside Local 598, scores of strikers were sitting at long tables, filling out forms for health insurance, which the union must provide during the strike because GM made the unexpectedly aggressive decision to suspend health benefits during the strike. The union's $750-million-plus strike fund will cover those costs and also pay union members $250 per week -- before taxes, as Tiffany Clifton, who works in the Poletown body shop, made a point of telling me.

Local President Ryan Buchalski invited me into his cluttered office with two other union officials. They were reluctant to talk with me on the record about the strike, but said they are committed to voting for the Democratic candidate in 2020, whoever that may be.

They remain puzzled by their fellow trade unionists' support for Trump, an employer infamous for stiffing his own workers.

But they also understand that the way he stokes white racial resentment and defends the working class holds a powerful appeal to men and women who feel marginalized, if not forgotten. Their members want to be seen.

In 2016, only one candidate was looking.

(c)2019 Los Angeles Times

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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