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The UAW endorses Biden but that doesn't necessarily translate into votes

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: By the end of today, we'll know who won the Democratic primary in Michigan. We won't have a definitive winner on the Republican side until Saturday, but neither expected to be a surprise. It's likely to be former President Trump against President Biden. Now, Michigan is a critical swing state in presidential elections, and Biden got a boost with an early endorsement from the United Auto Workers. But do rank-and-file members heed the leadership? We headed northwest of Detroit to Flint, where General Motors was founded, and spent the day with one family of auto workers.



FADEL: Are you Shelly?

ZISSLEY: I'm Shelly.

FADEL: I'm Leila.

ZISSLEY: Hi, Leila. It's nice to meet you.

FADEL: It's so nice to meet you.

That's Shelly Zissler welcoming us into the home she shares with her husband Matt. We sit down in their living room. The walls are graced with family pictures, and there's a little aquarium in the corner. I start by asking if the UAW endorsement means they're voting for Biden.

MATT: I will never let anyone tell me who to vote for. I'll take information from everyone. You know, in the end, I'll make up my own mind whether it's the union-endorsed candidate or not.

FADEL: This work and the union run in their blood. The couple met on the job, working for the same GM plant.

ZISSLEY: He was my electrician.

FADEL: Oh, nice.

ZISSLEY: And then eventually I figured out how to make my machine quit working so he would have to come over and (laughter)...

MATT: I knew it when she figured it out, but I didn't tell her not to do it anymore.


FADEL: Shelly is a third-generation auto worker, and one of her sons is now also in the union and an auto worker, as was her grandfather and father, a lifelong Democrat before he passed. She carried on that tradition as well until recently.

ZISSLEY: My dad was a diehard Democrat.

FADEL: Yeah.

ZISSLEY: So I grew up a Democrat and was - it was almost impounded in me that we're Democrats, we're Democrats, we're Democrats. And last year was the first time that I voted Republican, because I felt like Trump was better suited to run our country.

FADEL: She misspoke there. She meant the last presidential election in 2020. She blames Biden for the record number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump has vowed to crack down while Biden blames Republicans in Congress, encouraged by Trump of blocking legislation that would reform the immigration system. Shelley's husband identifies as libertarian, and he says he wants the government to stop sending money to wars abroad when it's hard for most Americans to make ends meet here.

MATT: I really don't know in this general election if either one of them is worth my vote.

FADEL: Do you feel like you don't have a good choice?

MATT: Yes. Within the last two general elections, I felt...

FADEL: Yeah.

MATT: ...The same way.

FADEL: What did you do last election, if you don't mind me asking?

MATT: I voted for Trump...

FADEL: You did?

MATT: ...Last election. Mmm-hmmm.

FADEL: And did you feel like at that time...

MATT: It was a very painful vote.

FADEL: Both Shelly and Matt say they wish they had different choices. They say they're worried about how deeply divided the country is.

MATT: I think we're mirroring Washington more and more and more. We watched some of the hearings over there, and it's juvenile, and that's what's happening here in the country. So they're supposed to be leading us and they're acting like fools over there.

FADEL: Shelly's 27-year-old son, Matt Vaughan, is sitting nearby. He says despite the generous pay raise he got in the most recent union contract, he can't keep up with the cost of living.

MATT VAUGHAN: We're trying to save and trying to take a vacation every now and then. It's almost next to impossible. It's hard...

FADEL: Yeah.

VAUGHAN: ...And I struggle quite a bit.

FADEL: We're joined now by national political correspondent Don Gonyea. He's based here in Michigan. He's covered the auto worker industry and unions for decades now. So, Don, we just heard from a union family. How representative are they of the union vote?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: So when you listen to them and you listen to their concerns, I would say that they are a typical UAW family, but I don't know that I would call them the typical UAW family. The UAW - according to their internal polling, their members tend to vote around 60% for the Democratic candidate. And here we have a family of people - they all appear to be at least - they're leaning toward Trump, if they haven't fully committed. So that would put them kind of at odds with where the union is more broadly, but not overwhelmingly. But it also shows that the UAW vote, like the union vote broadly, is not monolithic. A lot of people vote for a lot of reasons, even if they're in the unions. Some of them are voting on trade policy or on union issues, but some of them are voting on abortion or other social issues.

FADEL: So, I guess the big question is how much does the endorsement matter?

GONYEA: It feels like it's a pretty significant endorsement, more so than in years past. Again, I mentioned that number, 60%, where Democrats not only count on that, but need that, right? And in years past, there have been a lot of cycles, too many cycles for autoworkers, where they've had concessionary contracts, where they've had break-even contracts. They've been struggling. They've been beaten down. They weren't necessarily ready to take advice from their leadership, right? Now, they've come through a period with a new and charismatic UAW leader, Shawn Fain, who just brought them through a successful six-week strike in the fall. They got raises in the range of 30%. They got new job security. There is a resurgent UAW right now. And the question for me is if that has an impact at the ballot box.

FADEL: Yeah. President Biden calls himself the most pro-union president ever. Does his record reflect that?

GONYEA: it does. You know, he calls himself Union Joe. He talks about the unions backing him when he first ran for office, decades and decades ago, and they've stuck with him, and he's stuck with them. He has consistently supported policies - right to organize, worker protections, those sorts of things that the unions have pushed for. And don't underestimate the fact that during that auto strike last fall, he showed up in Detroit and marched on the picket line with striking auto workers. No president had ever done that. And that same week, former President Trump came to town, but he went to a non-union parts factory in the suburbs. And the UAW leadership and the rank and file sure took notice of that.

FADEL: NPR political correspondent Don Gonyea. Thank you, Don.

GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.