United Auto Workers Strike Standoff Has High Stakes for Key Senate Race in Ohio

The United Auto Workers’ threat to strike the Big Three domestic automakers could reshape one of the key races in next year’s battle for control of the US Senate.

(Bloomberg) — The United Auto Workers’ threat to strike the Big Three domestic automakers could reshape one of the key races in next year’s battle for control of the US Senate.

Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, a progressive populist whose support of organized labor is a crucial part of his political brand, has strongly backed the union as he heads into a tough reelection in a state that former President Donald Trump won twice.

Ohio is home to a battery factory that supplies General Motors Co., meaning the negotiations cast a shadow over the local economy. Brown has led dozens of Democrats in pushing the automakers to include battery workers in a national contract to bolster their wages and benefits.

“We’re gonna keep fighting,” said Brown, who recently visited with workers from the Ultium battery factory in eastern Ohio, which is part of a a joint venture between GM and LG Energy Solution.

The showdown could provide campaign fodder for either Brown or his eventual Republican opponent: If the two sides avert a strike and cut a deal that pays workers more and provides greater job security, that would bolster Brown’s pitch that union power is the best way to secure a fair shake for workers.

But if a strike is called and creates economic wreckage, it will present for an easy line of attack for Republicans. Even a short strike would cost the US economy billions.

Read More: UAW Eyes Strikes at Big Three With Talks Still ‘Far Apart’

Republicans seeking Brown’s job already have sought to turn union workers against him.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, one of the Republicans vying for the party’s nomination, blamed policies by Brown and President Joe Biden for endangering UAW jobs in a September op-ed for Ohio newspapers.

“The rapid and alarmist shift to electric vehicles threatens UAW jobs without warning or concern,” said LaRose, who called for more oil and gas drilling instead.

Brown, at the same time, has tried to highlight the benefits of a return to industrial policy under Biden, pointing out in an op-ed of his own that the approach has led to a massive boom in factory construction — including new battery, solar and chip factories being built in Ohio from the likes of Honda Motor Co. and Intel Corp.

Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act eliminated tax credits for electric cars built overseas and provided incentives for building up the domestic battery supply chain.

“If we had done nothing, those jobs would have gone overseas,” Brown said. “We want them built in the United States, we want them built by union workers, and that’s what this fight’s about.”

In July he and other Democrats wrote to the automakers calling it “unacceptable that in the midst of plentiful financial gains for the companies, executives, and investors, the workers making the electric vehicle batteries that will enable a transition to clean energy vehicles are making poverty-level wages.” Ultium later agreed to a 25% pay increase, but Brown said that’s not enough.

Earlier: UAW Boss Seeks 46% Raise, 32-Hour Work Week in Carmaker ‘War’

“Executives are making millions, the workers are getting squeezed, the new workers are getting squeezed more. There’s just no justice in that. That’s why they’re threatening to strike,” he said of the UAW. 

John Russo, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University and the former co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University, noted that auto workers, like those in other heavily unionized industries, have become increasingly split between supporting Democrats and Republicans.

That rift has been evident in elections in Ohio, when union leaders endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020 but many members voted for Trump in areas such as the Mahoning Valley, where GM has had operations for decades. 

The union has yet to make an endorsement in the 2024 presidential race, and Trump has said it would be better off throwing its support to him because the president’s EV agenda will cost jobs.

With the Senate election more than a year away, it’s not clear how strongly the faceoff between the UAW and carmakers will figure in voters’ minds at the ballot box.

Still, veteran Ohio Republican strategist Mark Weaver said that the longer any strike lasts, the more autoworkers will look to Brown to do something for them — even though there’s very little one senator can do in divided government.

“Members who are on strike will be particularly angry and looking for some help,” Weaver said.

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