Biden or Trump? Autoworkers back their guy

©The Detroit News

FLINT, Mich. — Inside General Motors Co.’s Flint Assembly plant, autoworkers are staking out both sides of the aisle — a reflection of the political division cleaving the Michigan electorate less than 20 days before the election.

Richard Incrocci says he loves his union as he stands in the parking lot of the United Auto Workers Local 598 hall that proudly displays Biden/Harris signs out front. So does his co-worker Lori Welch.

But they are divided over who should sit in the Oval Office the next four years, who could lead the country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, who’s best equipped to steer the battered U.S. economy and to fight for manufacturing jobs.

Incrocci loves America, and he doesn’t want his country to be led by former Vice President Joe Biden. He will be supporting President Donald Trump on Nov. 3 because “a vote for Trump is a vote for America,” he says before heading off to his shift as a team leader in the sprawling Flint plant that pumps out profit-rich heavy-duty trucks.

Welch is on the other side. She calls herself a centrist who identifies as a Democrat and is voting for Biden on Nov. 3: “Knowing that Joe Biden had a big hand in bringing America back from the brink makes me trust him.”

Biden might be backed by the United Auto Workers union, and had a hand in saving the auto industry a decade ago as Barack Obama’s vice president, but some blue-collar autoworkers are tuning out a progressive push by Democrats, and turning instead to Trump’s America-first stance and promises to bring back manufacturing.

The state of Michigan, however, really hasn’t seen the manufacturing boom promised during the last four years of Trump’s tenure. Manufacturing employment in the state stood at 617,100 when Trump took office in January 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ seasonally adjusted data on manufacturing. It peaked at 634,200 in December 2018. By January 2020, manufacturing jobs declined to 628,700, then to 623,700 in February 2020.

Don Grimes, a senior research specialist at the University of Michigan, noted that manufacturing output expanded between January 2017 and February 2020 despite employment levels only slightly increasing by 6,600.

The sector staged a comeback from the pandemic, going from 442,900 jobs in April 2020 to 562,000 in August, Grimes said: “It’s been a really strong recovery as the factories reopened.”

Non-seasonally adjusted employment levels in the state’s transportation equipment manufacturing sector also have been mostly stagnant. Michigan had 190,000 of these jobs in January 2017, and that dropped slightly down to 188,300 jobs by January 2020 after a peak of 196,000 in December 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In August, there were 164,100 of these jobs.

“Employment in manufacturing is sort of a victim of the ability to produce more output with fewer people,” Grimes said. “People have all of the goods … and so now what they want are fancier goods that have more computer software embodied in it or pure services to meet their needs.”

Trump’s rally cry to bring manufacturing back to the industrial Midwest stuck with Michiganians, leading him to a slim victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016 with less than 11,000 more votes — an unforeseen electoral squeaker that helped deliver him to the Oval Office.

Incrocci, 53, of Grand Blanc, was one of those votes. The 20-year GM employee has seen the ups and downs of the industry. The autoworker voted for Obama twice but was all-in for Trump when he came out in 2016 because he liked the real estate mogul’s business background and the fact that he wasn’t a career politician.

“We didn’t need a smooth-talking politician in the White House,” he said. “We needed a doctor with no bedside manners to tell you what you didn’t want to hear.”

In the last four years, Incrocci has agreed with how aggressive Trump has been on trade, on jobs and “everything that is pro-America and pro-American.”

“I cannot say I agree with everything that he has said and done,” he said. “He is Trump. He’s arrogant. He’s brash. But he’s honest. He does what he says he’s gonna do.”

Over the next four years, Incrocci wants to see lower taxes, more jobs, less regulation and “a lot more winning.”

Welch, 54, of Lapeer, works in supplier quality at the plant and has a hard time trusting what Trump says or does. But with Biden she knows he was there to save her job when GM and the old Chrysler Group needed federal bailouts and bankruptcy to keep them afloat, controversial decisions that saved the industry, its jobs and the Midwest economy from collapse.

In Biden, she sees a “classy and caring” candidate she can count on: “Joe Biden is a relatable man. He has had real experiences. He has had loss.” She doesn’t get that with Trump.

Biden’s experiences, she said, will help him know how to help Americans who are trying to survive in the age of a historic pandemic: “Biden has a clear plan … with COVID going on right now he has more of a consistent plan. He has a consistent message.”

She sees Trump as “a complete liar” with a bad business record. Welch recalled how contractors on various Trump property projects allege he didn’t pay them.

“It’s like your parents: you need to trust that they are handling the stuff that’s out of your control, and I don’t have the trust in him that he’s handling anything for me because he has not even handled it for himself,” she said.

Art Reyes, 53, of Grand Blanc has been an autoworker for more than 30 years. He’s been there when hundreds of jobs disappeared as more robots came online. He saw jobs go overseas. And he saw through what Trump said about bringing back jobs.

“When I listened to the words that he said, I knew that the things that he was promising were not attainable,” the skilled tradesman at Flint Assembly said. Reyes will be voting for Biden. Like Welch, he recognizes that Biden’s actions with Obama helped save the auto industry. He also remembers how Trump suggested automakers could shift production to states in the South to cut labor costs and prevent investment and jobs from being made in Mexico.

The future of the planet is something Reyes cares deeply about. He wants to see the U.S. get back into the Paris climate accord that Trump withdrew the country from and that Biden says he will reenter.

“We led in that effort and brought countries into it because of our leadership and now we’re the outlier,” Reyes said. The exiting “sacrificed the environment, our people and futures for the sake of corporate greed.”

Reyes, who is of Mexican descent, also made the decision to pick Biden over Trump because he hasn’t agreed with how immigrants have been treated during Trump’s tenure.

“You can’t look at me and tell that I’m not from Mexico City or the northern part of Mexico, which is where my people are from,” he said. “The only way that can be deciphered is through questioning. I am an American citizen. I should not have to carry my papers.”

But Omar Guevara, 46, of Clio is also of Mexican descent. He has agreed with Trump’s stance on immigration, including the construction of a border wall: “The moment that you cross that border knowing that you don’t have documents, you’re a criminal. You broke the law.”

Guevara, who works on the assembly line at GM Flint, has liked Trump since he decided to run for president in 2016. Trump isn’t a polished politician. His differences and willingness to not be the accepted Republican nominee made Guevara like him more, because he also doesn’t “follow the herd.”

Guevara stood with Trump on his trade measures. Trump took on China’s trade tactics with tariffs and worked to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States Mexico Canada Agreement, which requires automakers to produce cars with 75% of parts originating from the United States, Canada or Mexico — up from 62.5%.

Trump’s push to revive the coal and oil industries is something Guevara sees as helping the industry he’s in. “Do you know what them industries do for the automotive industry? They make it boom. You can’t power them vehicles if you don’t have the energy to do it.”

From his perspective, Trump has accomplished everything he said he was going to, from being tough on trade to immigration and growing the economy, which is why Guevara will be voting for him again this November.

“I want him to continue everything that he’s been doing … to continue completing every promise that he’s made,” he said. “He’s been either doing or trying harder than anybody to get things accomplished.”

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© 2020 The Detroit News