This article is a joint publication of Workday Magazine and In These Times.
Three and a half weeks into the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) stand-up strike against the Big Three — General Motors, Ford and Stellantis — the GOP is coalescing around a talking point: that the autoworkers’ real enemy is China.
The argument goes something like this: Biden’s federal policies are driving up electric vehicle production, which requires the import of components, like batteries, from China. This process, according to Republicans, is not only enriching an official U.S. rival, but also threatening U.S. jobs.
This line of thinking fits perfect for a staunchly anti-union Republican Party, because it allows its purveyors to look like they are standing with striking workers, without supporting any of their actual demands, like a 36% pay increase, an end to tiers, stopping the abuse of temporary workers, cost-of-living adjustments and more paid time off. Instead of focusing their ire at the Big Three’s CEOs, who together made $74 million last year, GOP officials are pivoting to a narrative of Great Power competition with China, something they were already invested in, and that has been embraced by both parties in Washington.
“The UAW should use their leverage and force the President to stop subsidizing an industry that benefits Communist China more than it does American workers,” wrote former venture capitalist and U.S. Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) in a Sept. 19 op-ed for the Toledo Blade. As Kate Aronoff noted for The New Republic, Vance has built his career on “making opportunistic appeals to the plight of a working class he routinely describes as lazy, ungrateful slobs.”
“Auto workers deserve a raise — and they deserve to have their jobs protected from Joe Biden’s stupid climate mandates that are destroying the US auto industry and making China rich,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on X (formerly Twitter) on September 15. Adam Johnson observed in The Real News Network that Hawley’s line does not diverge from that of the auto companies, which also claim they want to give auto workers a raise, just not as much as the union is asking for — a topic Hawley deftly avoids.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, now running to be the Republican candidate for the 2024 presidential election, has also embraced this line of argument. “These guys are seeing the Green New Deal that was passed under the guise of the Inflation Reduction Act, they’re seeing it drive their industry into EVs, benefiting China that makes most of our batteries,” Pence said in a September 17 interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. Pence has an established track record of taking anti-worker positions, including his long-standing opposition to lifting the federal minimum wage.
But perhaps the biggest purveyor of the claim that China is the enemy of striking auto workers is former president and 2024 hopeful Donald Trump, who spoke on September 27 at a non-union auto manufacturer, Drake Enterprises, Inc., in Macomb County, Michigan. “A vote for crooked Joe means the future of the auto industry will be made in China. That’s what it’s going to be,” he said in that address. As president, Trump’s anti-worker track record included filling the National Labor Relations Board and the courts with anti-union appointees, and restricting overtime pay.
This China-focused narrative is not merely a distraction: It’s an object lesson in how talk of Great Power competition is used to undercut worker power in the United States.
The UAW and its leadership have been clear that their strike is a direct challenge to the power of wealthy elites here in the United States. The union has repeatedly called out executives at the Big Three, who they accuse of stiffing consumers through price gouging and lining their own pockets through exorbitant stock buybacks, rather than fairly compensating the workers whose labor created their massive profits.
The union’s discussion of electric vehicles has focused on the vital importance of making sure an energy transition is not a race to the bottom, but is characterized by the higher wages and standards associated with unions. (And on Friday, UAW announced that GM agreed in writing that its electric battery plants will be included in the national contract with the union.)
In response to fear mongering about how the strike will ruin the economy, UAW President Shawn Fain has said, “It’s not that we’re gonna wreck the economy, we’re gonna wreck their economy, the economy that only works for the billionaire class.”
Talking about the role of UAW members in building up the “arsenal of democracy” during World War II, on September 26, Fain explained, “Today, the enemy isn’t some foreign country miles away. It’s right here in our own area. It’s corporate greed.”
And as if these messages were not clear enough in identifying the autoworkers’ enemy, at his October 6 address to the union membership on Facebook Live, Fain wore a t-shirt reading “EAT THE RICH.”
Chris Viola is a GM worker in Michigan, a member of UAW Local 22, and a participant in the rank-and-file movement Unite All Workers for Democracy. He says, “I have no issues with any Chinese workers if they are also building vehicles. The workers over there are all trying to do exactly what the workers here are trying to do, which is make a living, be able to make a life for themselves, pay bills, put a roof over their head, take care of their children.”
“That’s how I feel about workers all over the world,” he says “I have no qualms with them. Doesn’t matter where they’re from.”
Unsurprisingly, the same politicians who regularly serve the billionaire class are now hoping to undermine the UAW’s fight against corporate greed by trying to redirect autoworkers’ frustrations away from the CEOs here at home and towards China.
The GOP has paired this anti-China message with another non sequitur grievance: the idea that the transition to electric vehicles will hurt U.S. workers. Despite the fact that the UAW has embraced a just transition away from fossil fuels, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Hawley, Trump, Vance — and other Republicans attempting to piggyback off the energy of the UAW strike — keep insisting that supporting auto workers means opposing the transition to electric vehicles.
Friday, in an op-ed in Newsweek, Sen. Vance blamed President Biden’s advocacy of electric vehicles for the strike even though this is not the stated position of the UAW. Rather, this approach simply ascribes partisan opposition to climate measures and vilification of China onto workers in order to advance Republican positions on these issues, while avoiding support for the union’s demands. Indeed, opposition to climate policy is an auto industry lobby talking point, something the Big Three and their Washington lobbyists spend considerable time complaining about. Vance, Trump and their allies are attempting to repaint a pro-CEO line as one emanating from auto workers and hoping the media doesn’t notice.
In shifting the conversation to opposition to electric vehicles, and tying that to anti-China rhetoric, these politicians are enabled by Washington’s bipartisan support for a confrontational stance toward the East Asian country.
Great Power competition, which refers to the U.S. quest for corporate and military dominance over China, is not unique to the GOP. It was a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, as well as the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. And it was embraced by the Trump administration, who escalated the trade war after declaring in a 2017 report on national security strategy that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”
This competition has been carried forward by the Biden administration, which has pursued economic “frameworks” to hedge against China, and has continued to build up the military presence of the United States and its allies in an arc around China. (While China is also projecting military power in the South China Sea, the U.S. military buildup in the region remains greater.) Year after year, the need to counter China has been used to justify the ratcheting up of U.S. military budgets.
There are manifold ways this Great Power competition has harmed workers. The United States is spending public money on war games and battle ships while domestic poverty increases sharply. In its quest to assert economic hegemony over China, the U.S. is boosting labor-rights-abusing governments like the Philippines, where union activists suffer “red tagging” — being branded a communist insurgent — by the government, and some, like Alex Dolorosa, a union organizer and paralegal for the BPO Industry Employee Network, have been killed. What’s more, every new warship and military installation ratchets up the risk of a hot war between the U.S. and China, which would almost certainly be fought at the expense of the poor and marginalized.
In the GOP response to the UAW strike, we are seeing in real time how the grand narrative of Great Power competition is being used to undercut the demands of an emboldened labor movement. But we’ve also seen this before.
The onset of the Cold War and the accompanying Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s was used by Republicans to pass the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act. In light of the supposed threat posed by the Soviet Union, employers and business groups decried militant strikes by U.S. workers as unpatriotic, and labeled criticisms of capitalism as communist and treasonous. As the CEO of General Electric Charles E. Wilson put it in 1946, “The problems of the United States can be…summed up in two words: Russia abroad, Labor at home.”
The U.S. rivalry with the Soviet Union also undermined solidarity within the labor movement. Out of political expediency, UAW President Walter Reuther took the lead in a redbaiting campaign that saw 11 left wing-led unions expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations because they [refused to get on board with Cold War militarism, specifically by endorsing anti-Cold War candidate Henry Wallace in the 1948 presidential election.
The U.S. government’s aggressive anticommunist foreign policy throughout the Cold War decades — which included CIA-sponsored coups and outright military invasions — ultimately served to weaken and divide labor movements in much of the world, helping set the stage for multinational corporations to pit workers in different countries against each other in an ongoing race to the bottom.
As conservative politicians attempt to rebrand the UAW strike as an anti-China crusade, and falsely portray themselves as champions of workers, it is worth remembering this history — and listening to what auto workers are actually demanding.