Trump visit puts UAW politics in crosshairs

YPSILANTI, MICH. - The Detroit Three are offering to bus workers from auto plants across southeast Michigan to President Donald Trump's rally in Ypsilanti on Wednesday — a move that is drawing criticism from at least two union officials who say the president doesn’t really support American workers, and that they don’t want UAW members to become political props.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and General Motors told workers they will transport them to and from Trump's rally, provide lunch and cover their pay for the day if they miss a shift at their plant. Ford will do the same, but will not cover their pay.

The event puts both automakers and the UAW squarely in the middle of touchy presidential politics. For automakers who have been targeted by Trump for moving jobs to Mexico, the event provides another opportunity to ask the administration for help on regulatory and policy issues. For UAW leaders, the event is an opportunity to find common ground on free-trade issues.

The union, however, is in sharp disagreement with many of the Republican president's other policies.

UAW President Dennis Williams has repeatedly said he disagrees with Trump on health care, immigration, the environment and most other major issues. But Williams supports Trump's desire to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and has applauded Trump's decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 14-nation agreement that included the U.S. and a number of Asian nations.

Gabe Solano, president of UAW Local 372 in Trenton, said he doesn't remember automakers ever offering to bus workers to an off-site political event to see a president speak.

"I have been at Chrysler for 23 years, and I have never seen this kind of approach. We have never seen them go out of their way to pay people to go to a rally," said Solano, who represents UAW members who make engines for Fiat Chrysler. "I find it amusing that Trump's camp always likes to say Democrats are paying people to attend rallies. It's kind of ironic now that companies are paying people to attend Trump rallies."

His local has distributed a flyer urging workers to boycott Trump's rally, saying that the president "threatens our jobs and our way of life!"

The flyer states: "Trump rally not endorsed by the UAW."

Charles Bell, president of UAW Local 1700 in Sterling Heights, said he has declined an invitation to attend, and he posted a statement about the decision on the website of his local, which represents workers at Fiat Chrysler's Sterling Heights Assembly Plant.

"I think, in my opinion, that he does not have the best interest of working-class people in his heart," Bell said, referring to Trump. "I think he sees an opportunity to say that he has the support of unionized workers in Michigan, and that’s why he wanted workers at his rally, and I was not going to be a part of that."

Wednesday's event is shaking out to be unusual, even as presidential visits go. President Barack Obama, during his tenure, visited Ford, Fiat Chrysler and GM plants and facilities where automakers employ workers. Trump, in contrast, is visiting a neutral setting and has invited all automakers and  asked them to invite workers.

Trump will be speaking at the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run. The center is the site of a testing facility for self-driving cars that will open this year. The president is expected to talk about jobs — specifically, automotive jobs — and may announce a plan to roll back fuel-efficiency standards.

"This is is an unprecedented event where the whole industry is being acknowledged, and the White House wanted to make sure it had a cross-section of employees — both salaried and hourly — to celebrate the auto industry," Fiat Chrysler spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said.

Tinson said the Auburn Hills automaker will transport several hundred workers from its plants and headquarters to the event.

"Because of the location of the venue, we had to provide transportation," she said.

The move to bus workers was applauded by some autoworkers who support Trump.

"Wow! That's fantastic," said Brian Pannebecker, a worker at Ford's axle plant in Sterling Heights and a longtime political activist who also is a spokesman for Michigan Freedom to Work, a grassroots organization that helped fight for right-to-work legislation in Michigan.

"The UAW, for too long, has acted like it represents the feelings of all of the autoworkers ... and now there is a gap opening up between the union leadership and the union membership, and this is an example of that," Pannebecker said.

The UAW, which almost exclusively backs Democrats at the ballot box, said last month that an internal study showed that 59% of its members had voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November presidential election, 33% for Trump, a Republican, and 8% cast ballots for others or didn't vote.

GM spokesman Tom Wickham confirmed that the Detroit automaker has offered to bus several hundred workers to Trump's event from plants ranging from Flint to Romulus and that the Trump administration was hoping that workers could attend.

"We are not trying to politicize this at all. It's an event on manufacturing, and you have a chance to see the president speak," Wickham said. "We have been very clear that this is voluntary."

Wickham said workers who miss work to attend will be paid for the time they miss, and the day will not be counted as an absence.

Ford also confirmed that it is providing buses for workers interested in attending the rally.

"Employees are attending voluntarily on their own time and coordinating with their supervisors," Ford said in a statement.

Whether the UAW's president will attend remains an open question. On Tuesday, UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg declined to comment on Williams' plans or the automotive companies' decision to bus workers to the event.

Beyond agreeing with Trump on renegotiating trade agreements, Williams has echoed Trump's "America First" slogan by saying the UAW may revive its "Buy American" campaign.

"We’re seeing a trend in this country — the boycott may be coming back," Williams said last month, adding that the "Buy American" push is gaining steam for the first time in "many, many years."

Williams has said several times that the union supports significant changes to NAFTA and hopes to work with the Trump administration to change, fix or dismantle the three-country trade deal.

"He’s been the first president that has addressed this issue. I’m gonna give him kudos for that," Williams said last month.

© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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