Democrats Try to Navigate a Looming Strike in North Carolina

Barring a last-minute breakthrough, more than 7,000 workers are set to walk off their truck and bus assembly lines on Friday night in the swing state of North Carolina, injecting the United Automobile Workers’ new activism in the South directly into the 2024 election.

North Carolina has never been hospitable to organized labor, and the midnight strike at the North American subsidiary of the German industrial giant Daimler Truck has been greeted with trepidation by the state’s Democratic establishment, which has long tried to project a moderate, pro-business bent.

But Shawn Fain, the U.A.W.’s brash new president, doesn’t much care.

“We don’t expect politicians to save the day, but at the end of the day, politicians have an obligation to the people that elect them,” he said in an interview on Thursday, adding: “It’s our generation-defining moment. This is a time where politicians need to pick a side.”

In September, President Biden joined the picket line of the U.A.W.’s successful strike of the Big Three U.S. automakers, and Thursday, a White House spokeswoman, Robyn Patterson, indicated that the president could be equally aggressive if there was a Daimler walkout.

“President Biden strongly believes that those benefiting from our strong support for manufacturing made in American should work in good faith to do everything possible to ensure jobs — including those in North Carolina — remain well-paid, middle-class jobs, and that all workers have a fair and free choice to join a union if they choose,” she said.

Democratic leaders in North Carolina, including Gov. Roy Cooper, were far more equivocal — and deferential — to Daimler Truck, a major employer in the state.

“North Carolina workers are the best and most productive in the world and need to be paid fairly,” Mr. Cooper said in a statement on Thursday. “We’re proud that Daimler Trucks and its amazing U.A.W. workers are building the future of electric school bus travel right here in North Carolina, and I will continue to monitor the contract negotiations and urge a swift resolution.”

Josh Stein, the Democratic attorney general who is running to replace Governor Cooper, who is term-limited, was similarly careful in a statement.

“North Carolina workers deliver the best products in the world, and they deserve to be valued,” he said. “I’ve been in touch with both parties to encourage them to continue to work toward an agreement that supports workers and enables the company to continue to succeed.”

Making matters more delicate, one of the central grievances of the union is the electric vehicle transition pressed by Mr. Biden, in part through the $5 billion Clean School Bus Program, which has channeled $14 million worth of federal funds directly to Daimler’s Thomas Built bus division in High Point, N.C., and millions more through school districts buying Thomas Built electric buses. The union says the workers at the High Point plant are among the lowest paid in the company.

“Our taxpayer dollars aren’t being injected into these companies to assist with an E.V. transition just for a few people on top to get rich and leave everybody else behind,” Mr. Fain said. “There have to be better standards.”

To the U.A.W., a successful strike in the state with the second-lowest percentage of union workers in the country is vital. The six-week work stoppage at the three largest U.S. automakers last fall secured the largest pay raises in decades.

That helped propel U.A.W. organizers into the nonunionized South, where workers at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee voted overwhelmingly last week to join the union, a breakthrough that created a beachhead for union organizers. Daimler Truck North America is unionized, but U.A.W. officials want to win record wage gains at Daimler’s plants in Mount Holly, Cleveland, High Point and Gastonia, N.C., and parts distribution centers in Atlanta and Memphis ahead of an organizing vote next month at Mercedes-Benz in Alabama.

“Our fight at Daimler is intimately connected with something else happening in the South,” Mr. Fain told members in a broadcast from Detroit on Tuesday night. “Autoworkers at nonunion auto companies have launched a national movement to unionize.”

But Tennessee and Alabama are not in play in 2024. North Carolina is, and Democratic politicians there appear to be reticent hosts.

Mr. Cooper and Mr. Stein have positioned themselves as centrists whose success has revolved around improving education and job training, and diversifying the economy in North Carolina, said Ferrel Guillory, a professor at the University of North Carolina.

“There’s no particular upside, politically speaking, for center and center-left Democrats to come across in the same way that a Gretchen Whitmer would,” he said, referring to the governor of heavily unionized Michigan. “Cooper and Stein aren’t anti-union, but they’re not northern politicians either.”

In contrast, Mr. Biden has proclaimed himself the “most pro-union president in history” as he has collected union endorsements, the most recent coming on Wednesday from the North America’s Building Trades Unions. If Mr. Biden steps in aggressively, he could find himself clashing with North Carolina’s top Democrats when the state’s highest offices are on the line.

A year ago, the Biden administration appeared to use the leverage provided by federal electric school bus subsidies to help the United Steelworkers unionize Blue Bird, a school bus company in Fort Valley, Ga. Two weeks before the union vote, the Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the Clean School Bus Program, demanded that recipients of federal subsidies detail the benefits they were offering their workers, and required the companies to “remain neutral in any organizing campaign.”

This time, an E.P.A. spokesman said, the agency has not engaged with Daimler.

Mr. Fain said on Thursday that the union has worked with the administration, and he laid the responsibility for the possible strike at management’s feet. But he was aware of the political ramifications of a major labor action in a swing state.

“You’re either going to stand with the working-class people and the people that make this country move and make this world move, or they’re going to stand with corporations and business leaders and the billionaires,” he said. “And if that’s what they choose, then when it comes time to vote, we can see a shift.”

Pro-union groups want to see Democrats step up. Ahead of the Volkswagen vote in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Republican governors of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas issued a statement saying that unionizing would jeopardize auto jobs in their states. Erica Smiley, the executive director of Jobs With Justice, which helps workers seeking to unionize and bargain collectively, said on Thursday that Mr. Cooper should draw a contrast in North Carolina, which has been largely anti-union.

“Workers are doing their part to ask for democracy and to fight for it,” she said. “They’re giving an opportunity for us and for politicians like Roy Cooper to right centuries of wrongs.”

A Daimler spokeswoman, Anja Weinert, said the company was continuing to negotiate “in good faith.”

Any new contract should “allow Daimler Truck North America to continue delivering the products that enable our customers to keep the world moving,” she said.

The U.A.W. sees it differently. On Thursday, it filed four complaints with Mr. Biden’s National Labor Relations Board, accusing Daimler Truck of retaliating against union organizers, interfering with collective bargaining, discriminating against union members and bargaining in bad faith.

The union, which has already endorsed the president’s re-election, would clearly like help from Mr. Biden. In talking points ahead of the strike, the U.A.W. leaned into the electric school bus subsidies.

“The government is spending up to $345,000 per bus in taxpayer money,” union officials wrote. “Meanwhile, the workers who build the product see their quality of life going in the wrong direction. Members are asking: Why should American taxpayer dollars subsidize corporate greed?”

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