DETROIT, Michigan: As Michigan’s labor leaders openly endorse Hillary Clinton, United Automotive Workers (UAW) members like Donald Marshall Jr. plan to vote for Republican Donald Trump.
It’s a conundrum for union leaders trying to deliver the state for Democrats because the former first lady carries the heavy political baggage of being married to the man who signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
For Marshall — and many other blue-collar union members — trade is the only issue that counts this year. They see NAFTA as bad policy because they say it encouraged a migration of valuable US manufacturing jobs to other countries. Studies have produced conflicting conclusions about whether the overall impact of the trade deal has been bad for the U.S. economy. While some studies conclude NAFTA has led to a loss of manufacturing jobs, others say the US economy has benefited from increased trade and gains in other areas of the economy, such as new jobs that support increased trade.
Trump said he would rip up the agreement and has called the proposed TPP, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, “a disaster.”
“He was the first guy … in 20 years who identified the massive problem with our lack of manufacturing jobs,” said Marshall, who works at Ford’s Sterling Axle plant. “And Clinton — she’s Mrs. NAFTA, which destroyed manufacturing jobs. There is a direct link between NAFTA and our shrinking manufacturing economy.”
Marshall, 43, of Shelby Township in most ways appears to be a Democrat: He describes himself as “centrist” and favors abortion rights, and he’s not bothered by gay marriage, either. He also grew up in a mostly Democratic family, like many union members.
Trump’s message is resonating among some union members and has labor leaders working overtime to diffuse that support as Labor Day approaches and Election Day is just two months away. It’s a debate playing out on social media and in plants across the Midwest.
“I would characterize it as enormous enthusiasm, the likes of which I haven’t seen in a while,” said Brian Pannebecker, a Republican activist who also works at Ford’s axle plant in Sterling Heights and is a former UAW member. “There was no palpable excitement for John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012.”
Still some doubters
Despite the vigorous debate over global free trade, some pollsters doubt that Trump is making anything more than the usual Republican inroads with union members.
Still, Trump has made free trade a central pillar of his campaign and is trying to put Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, among other states, into play with an aggressive pitch to blue-collar, working-class families who have been hurt as thousands of manufacturing jobs have moved to Mexico over the past 22 years.
“Trade has big benefits. And I am in favor totally of trade. But I want trade deals for our country that create more jobs …,” Trump said earlier this month when he spoke in Detroit.
Clinton, for her part, has pledged to renegotiate NAFTA and rejects TPP. Still, NAFTA was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and Hillary Clinton initially was open to supporting TPP until last year, leading to skepticism among some union members about her true feelings.
That skepticism is unfounded, said Steve Neuman, a special adviser to Clinton’s campaign in Michigan.
“Secretary Clinton has been very clear on TPP. She has said she is against TPP now; she will be against it after the election, and she would be against it as president of the United States,” Neuman said. “I think that a sober examination of two records side-by-side leaves little doubt that Hillary Clinton is the candidate who is on the side of working families in Michigan.”
Despite Trump’s appeal on free trade, political experts and UAW leaders say Trump’s ability to entice more union support than past Republican presidential candidates is a myth and his level of support is eroding.