DETROIT -- President Donald Trump returned to one of American labor’s last remaining strongholds with a message that could drive a wedge between long Democratic-leaning union leadership and members that are breaking ranks.
Trump on Wednesday courted hundreds of UAW members in their backyard Wednesday, pledging to reopen a review of auto industry fuel economy standards. The president’s claims he’s lifting regulations that hinders jobs risks dividing rank-and-file union workers -- who backed the Republican at rates last achieved by Ronald Reagan -- against UAW leadership that worked with the Obama administration on the rules and has stood by them.
After criticizing union wages as too rich on the campaign trail, Trump invited labor groups to the White House within days of his arrival, withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and pledged to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Those actions resonate with many working-class voters and position the billionaire president as a Republican with a shot at breaking Democrats’ hold on the UAW and the wider labor movement.
“Here’s a guy who wants to bring Detroit back to its greatness,” Paul Thayer, a UAW member and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles line worker who voted for Trump, said in an interview. “Let’s give him a chance.”
Trump has pledged regulatory relief for an auto industry that agreed to raise the average fuel economy of passenger cars to more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. Barack Obama’s administration estimated it would cost the industry about $33 billion to meet the standards. Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark Fields has told Trump about 1 million U.S. jobs are at risk if fuel-economy rules don’t align with market reality.
UAW President Dennis Williams, an Obama ally who endorsed Hillary Clinton, told reporters last month he doesn’t think the rules will hurt employment. “It actually enhances jobs if we do it the right way,” he said at the union’s headquarters in Detroit.
Williams, who was seated next to Trump during Wednesday's meeting with auto executives, does see some benefits of the new administration. He supported Trump’s move to pull the U.S. out of the TPP and his desire to reopen NAFTA.
“He’s been the first president that has addressed this issue,” he said. “I’m going to give him kudos for it. We’ve been hollering about this for 20 years and he is the first president who has brought this up.”
On other issues -- immigration policies, cabinet appointments and health care reform, to name a few -- Trump remains diametrically opposed to UAW leadership, which “will not walk away from our core principles,” Williams said.