A Shop Divided: Union Members Split Over Biden And Trump

Download Audio
A voter arrives at a polling place on March 3, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
A voter arrives at a polling place on March 3, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden met with the president of the United Steelworkers Wednesday on a whistle-stop tour through Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Biden is trying to win back union, working-class voters in the Midwest that helped President Trump win the election in 2016. The president is making the pitch that he’s saved American manufacturing, but the numbers suggest otherwise.

Michigan lost some 68,000 manufacturing jobs from July 2019 to July 2020, and Ohio was down 47,000 jobs during the same period. Nationwide, manufacturing is still down 720,000 workers from February, after the coronavirus pandemic slashed the 500,000 jobs gained during Trump’s first three years in office, which was on par with the pace of growth under former President Obama.

Union workers on the ground are fiercely divided over which candidate to support in November, says Tim Petrowski, president of USW Local 1900 in South Lyon, Michigan, who says he’s voting for Biden. His union management tends to support Democratic candidates, as they have historically, he says, but “it’s a shop divided” among the rank and file.

“Twenty years ago, this place would have been 95% Democrats, and now it's really split,” he says. “I'd probably have to say something like 60-40 Republican over Democrat now.”

Zach Menke, a member of the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Council, and a pipefitter who works at the Husky refinery in Lima, Ohio, agrees that his coworkers have grown more divided.

He’s voting for Trump because his No. 1 issue is abortion, and he says he could never vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights. But he notes that many of his coworkers who also support Trump say they are voting for him because his policies support workers.

“He's supported and shown support for a lot of what we do in the oil field and construction and manufacturing,” Menke says. “And I look at some of the things that Biden and some of these other Democrat politicians support, and it directly affects our work. They may be pro-union per say, but I don't feel that there's many of them that are pro the work that we do a lot out here.

While Petrowski admits Biden has a “tough climb” ahead in his bid to win over union workers, he says he thinks Biden can convince many of them with his plan to bring good-paying union jobs back to the U.S.

“Like at our mill, we sell USA-made pipe and our steel's bought here in America, and one of the things he promised was to spend government money on products made in America,” Petrowski says. “So if they're going to use steel, they're going to use our steel.”

Petrowski says he blames Trump for the loss of steel industry jobs due to his “mishandling” of the coronavirus pandemic. He says steel jobs grew steadily in the years leading up to the pandemic, but now they’ve declined significantly.

“Our shop definitely was on the uptick. We hired 100 people. So we went from 140ish people to 250,” he says. “But here we are, 2020 in October now, and we're down over 100 people. We actually have less people working than we did during that rise.”

Even though Menke and many of his coworkers lost their jobs due to the pandemic, he says work is picking back up in Ohio, and he doesn’t think Trump could have done much to prevent the economic downtown.

“It was an unfortunate thing that happened,” Menke says. “I think it could have been prevented on a lot of different levels, but I don't see where it would be able to be pinpointed on something that Trump did or didn't do. I thought he's handled it fairly well, to be honest with you.”

Democrats used to be a shoo-in for the working class vote, but they lost that support in 2016. Menke predicts that’s going to happen again.

“Look, I'm not a huge fan of Trump as a person or some of the other things that he may say or do, but when it comes to the values that I support and work in bringing infrastructure back into this country, I think that that has a lot to do with why he got elected four years ago,” he says. “And I think that that's going to have a lot to do with why he's going to get elected again.”

Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on October 1, 2020.


Peter O'Dowd Senior Editor, Here & Now
Peter O’Dowd has a hand in most parts of Here & Now — producing and overseeing segments, reporting stories and occasionally filling in as host. He came to Boston from KJZZ in Phoenix.


Samantha Raphelson Associate Producer, Here & Now
Samantha Raphelson is an associate producer for Here & Now, based at NPR in Washington, D.C.



Join the discussion

More from Here & Now

Listen Live