UAW President Dennis Williams faces another potential headache less than a year after a contentious contract ratification process with the Detroit 3: Donald Trump.
Blue-collar support for Trump, who won the Republican presidential nomination in part by appealing to workers like those represented by the UAW, could threaten to expose another potential rift between union leadership and some rank-and-file members.
One rift was exposed last year when Fiat Chrysler workers soundly rejected an initial deal cut between union leadership and the automaker, when General Motors skilled-trades workers rejected and delayed ratification of a new contract and when leadership narrowly escaped another embarrassing rejection at the hands of Ford workers.
Although the UAW was able to secure significant gains with the Detroit 3 -- including an agreement to end the dreaded two-tier wage system -- the contentious ratification process exposed a significant gap between the priorities of union leadership and a large share of workers.
Now, Trump could expose another gap, and Williams says he and union leaders are doing everything in their power to keep that from happening.
Recent polls show blue-collar workers, especially white workers, supporting Trump by large margins. That could give Trump an advantage in the UAW’s home in the Rust Belt, where blue-collar voters typically lean Democratic but can be persuaded to vote Republican if a message resonates. (See: Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.)
Trump has tapped into blue-collar workers’ often legitimate fears about globalization and free-trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. Many voters, especially those without college degrees and those who work in manufacturing, feel as though Washington has left them behind over the last few decades as jobs moved out of the country and wages stagnated.
Trump, who, to be sure, has also built his campaign on inflammatory rhetoric, racial resentment and xenophobia, has largely avoided specifics about how he would craft better trade deals. And, as Williams has pointed out, Trump has said things that could be unflattering to the average worker, suggesting that wages are too high and saying automakers should move production toward lower-wage states.
But that doesn’t seem to matter to many blue-collar voters. When presented with an option between Trump and Hillary Clinton -- an establishment politician who previously supported TPP before backtracking and whose husband signed NAFTA into law -- many of these workers are siding with the former reality TV star.
Williams, speaking with reporters Tuesday on a conference call from the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, said the UAW would do everything it could to ensure Clinton becomes president and gets the support of as many union members as possible.
Williams said Clinton “made every indication” during a sit-down with her that she would renegotiate NAFTA as president, which Williams said would help win over UAW members reluctant to support her. He also said the union has begun “engaging” workers on the election and has promised to knock on doors in each of the states the UAW is located.
“We believe that … the more we educate our members, the more they will support Hillary Clinton,” he said.
That engagement appears to be showing signs of working, if what Williams said is any indication. Williams said he estimates between 18 and 19 percent of UAW members support Trump today, down from the 28 percent of workers an internal poll found several months ago.
If those numbers are accurate, it is an encouraging sign that the UAW leadership is more effectively communicating with its members than it was last year, when Williams admitted the union was caught off guard by anti-ratification workers on social media.
But as last year showed, UAW leadership cannot afford to get complacent on messaging. Otherwise, if Trump rides on the support of enough blue-collar workers into office, that gap between leadership and some members could shut the union out of the White House for four or eight years.