Blue-Collar Voters in Michigan Swing County Turn From Sanders

March 11, 2020 Updated: March 13, 2020
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WARREN, Mich.—Donald Smith voted for Joe Biden in the Michigan Democratic primary, even though his favored candidate for president is Donald Trump. “If it is Biden against Trump, I will probably vote for Trump,” said the retired auto worker from Warren, a suburb of Detroit.

“Bernie is a socialist. I can’t back a socialist,” Smith told The Epoch Times. Smith’s vote for Biden is more of a vote against Sanders, he said.

After Trump took office, Smith saw hiring signs pop up at smaller factories that supply the “Big Three” auto companies (Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors). That’s something he hadn’t seen for years.

“[Trump isn’t] a very likeable personality, but he does do what he says he’s going to do and he’s brought jobs back,” said Smith. “That is the most important thing to me. If you got a job, you can support your family, that’s 90 percent of my vote.”

He said he didn’t particularly like or trust Trump in the 2016 election, but he voted for him to beat Hillary Clinton.

Donald Smith is one of the approximately 66,000 voters in Macomb County that helped Biden carry Michigan on March 10, compared to about 44,000 for Sanders.

Epoch Times Photo
Donald Smith, a retired auto worker, stands in his driveway in Warren, Mich., on March 10, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

Biden demonstrated his ability to build a broad coalition of voters, including African Americans, women, and union members in the swing state. Biden gained a “new wave of moderate white voters who have aligned themselves with the Democrats as refugees from President Trump’s Republican Party,” according to the New York Times.

If Smith is considered one of those “moderate white voters,” he certainly isn’t a refugee and will probably rejoin Trump’s camp in the fall. It’s not clear how many Donald Smiths are in Michigan, but in a state that Trump won in 2016 by the smallest margin of 0.23 percent, every one of them matters.

Macomb County is a swing county within a swing state. It’s the third most populous county in Michigan, and many of its residents are white, blue-collar workers connected to the auto industry.

The county favored Bill Clinton and then Barack Obama for both of his terms. But in 2016, its voters turned out in record numbers to support Trump. Trump’s victory margin in Michigan was just over 10,000 votes; in Macomb, it was more than 48,000.

Macomb has been touted by the Detroit Free Press as Michigan’s “political promised land.” Its importance was highlighted by one of Trump’s final campaign appearances there, two days before the presidential election, in 2016. At that time, he promised to bring back manufacturing jobs.

Many union workers who spoke to The Epoch Times on primaries day in Macomb said they don’t support Sanders even though he’s known as the champion of unions.

For some, it was because of a recent economic revitalization that they don’t trust Sanders to continue. For some, it was about holding onto their hard-won health care benefits and not losing those under a universal medical care system.

Hiring Signs in Macomb

Macomb County was once a place for the middle class to realize the American Dream, Smith said. Just north of Detroit, Warren’s streets are lined with rows of bungalows, the homes of union workers at the Big Three.

“You could always find a job at the Big Three back in the ‘70s,” said Smith. “You could walk in, apply, and usually start that night or that day.”

Macomb’s population increased by 200,000 between the ‘60s and ‘70s, and around 60,000 homes were built during that time. The county’s median household income in 1985 was $24,000, nearly $7,000 above the national median.

“The whole area changed because of NAFTA,” Smith said, “All the manufacturing jobs went down to Mexico.”

Smith worked at a GM factory and, although he kept his job, many of his colleagues were told to pack up and move to other factories in cities like St. Louis or Cleveland. “If you didn’t do that, you lost your job … it was hard,” Smith said.

He remembers those who got laid off would stand in line for eight or nine hours at an unemployment office trying to get a check.

As automakers closed, small firms that relied on them soon felt the pain.

Rick Ryan was a union worker with the City of Warren for about 30 years. He worked with small factories in the area and witnessed their closing over the years.

Epoch Times Photo
Rick Ryan, a longtime city union worker, stands on his porch in Warren, Mich., on March 10, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

“All the little shops … those shops closed up because the jobs went somewhere else,” he told The Epoch Times.

In the first seven years after NAFTA was passed, 43,600 jobs were lost or displaced in Michigan. Up to the first quarter of 2018, Michigan has lost nearly 20 percent of its manufacturing jobs.

China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization (WTO) also played a role in the job loss at auto companies.

But a different scene began to emerge slowly after Trump came to office. Small factories that supply to the Big Three began to reopen and hire workers.

“If you drive down 12 Mile Road,” Smith said, “you’ll see a bunch of shops along the side with signs [saying] ‘help wanted,’ ‘grinder hand,’ ‘CNC [Computer Numerical Control] helper,’ ‘Lathe helper’—all kinds of jobs. And they weren’t there before Trump got into office.”

Epoch Times Photo
A help-wanted sign in Warren, Mich., on March 10, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
A help-wanted sign in Warren, Mich., on March 10, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
A “now hiring” sign and a board listing the job openings in front of True Industrials in Warren, Mich., on March 10, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

Macomb is now the top county in the nation for new manufacturing jobs. Over 9,000 manufacturing jobs were added between the fourth quarter of 2016 and the second quarter of 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics.

While some voters with whom The Epoch Times spoke felt the economic improvements were due to an already improving economy from the Obama Administration, Smith and Ryan think it’s Trump’s trade policies.

“They had to stop making it more viable to send things out to get done with cheaper labor,” Ryan said. The tariffs Trump imposed on China have helped, he said. “That’s where the tariffs are coming in. It hurts a little bit, but that’s what it’s going to take.”

Shaun Gajewski, a tile setter by trade, voted for Biden. He told The Epoch Times he doesn’t support Sanders because, “You have to be both pro-business and pro-worker, because without the business, there’s no work.” He thinks Sanders’s desire to target the wealthy with taxes will stop businesses from hiring.

Epoch Times Photo
Shaun Gajewski, a tile setter by trade, stands on his porch in Warren, Mich., on March 10, 2020. (Cara Ding/The Epoch Times)

Gajewski didn’t vote in 2016. He didn’t like Trump, and he didn’t like Clinton. But he felt this year, it was critical to make a choice. When he saw the 2016 presidential election results for Michigan and saw only about 10,000 votes made the difference, he realized his voice matters.

“If you’re thinking about 10,000 people, that’s not a lot of people,” he said. He said if Biden doesn’t make it, he will vote for Sanders.

He thinks unions are important to ensure good wages. Ryan, who was a union steward for ten years and also a true union man, isn’t so keen on unions anymore.

A Union Democrat No Longer

Over the years, Ryan saw a change in the union. In the early days, “everybody appreciated what they had and what we were getting,” he said. “And over the years, it just seemed like everybody took it for granted.”

“It’s like everybody wanted the union to do something for him everyday,” he said. He tried to convince workers they had it pretty good, but they always wanted more.

Ryan also decided to stop following the union’s political line without looking into it himself.

“The union is always for the Democrats. I figured they keep up on this stuff better than me, so whatever they say to vote, I’ll vote,” he said. “I don’t do that anymore.”

A look at history informed him, he said. “A lot of labor laws were passed when Democrats were in power. FDR, he did a lot of good for the people and he was a Democrat. But Teddy Roosevelt did a lot of good too, and he was a Republican.”

His first Republican vote was against Clinton in 1996, after the NAFTA trade agreement was passed. He knew “it was a bad deal for everybody.” His most recent Republican vote was for Trump in 2016, and he plans to vote for him again in 2020.

“I think he’s the first real president we’ve had since Kennedy. Everybody else has been a frontman for their party,” Ryan said. “This guy, he has thoughts and opinions and he expresses them. He doesn’t wait to clear it with the party to see what they think.”

“I think all that’s long overdue.”

An Argument Against Medicare for All

Chris McEachran has worked for a union for about 30 years as a field supervisor for the City of Warren. He’s not registered to vote yet, and he didn’t vote in the primary. He’s non-partisan in general, he said, but leans more toward the conservative side.

He thinks he’ll probably vote for Trump in the fall. A key issue for him is health care. He doesn’t want Sanders to go ahead with Medicare for All.

“Most unions have sacrificed wages and other things in sessions … in order to maintain health care and try to keep it into retirement,” he told The Epoch Times. “It’s a major factor for negotiation in any union contract. … We don’t want Medicare for All, because we’ll lose what we sacrificed for over the years.”

McEachran said he also doesn’t want to pay a lot of taxes. He’s pro-union, because otherwise “you can’t get a fair shake.” The big automotive companies can’t deal with employees one-on-one, so they need collective bargaining, he said.

Chuck Grech is a retired Chrysler factory worker and an independent voter. “I voted for many Republicans … even as a union member, because I vote for who I believe will do the best for our country,” he told The Epoch Times.

He voted for Biden for the Michigan Democratic primary and said Sanders’s policies are good, but not feasible.

“Medicare for everyone, it’s a good thing. But can this country afford it? And how much tax is going to be coming out of the working class?”

He said Chrysler offered good health insurance. “I like private insurance. I can see who I want when I want.”

Grech knows a lot of friends in Canada—which is known for its publicly funded medical system—who come to the United States for medical care and pay out of pocket. “They don’t care. They just want to get better medical care.”

“Medicare for everybody, it will help the people, but it could hurt people too,” Grech said.

Other Voters’ Views

A 61-year-old woman from Macomb County, who preferred not to give her name, told The Epoch Times that the Democratic party has slid further and further away from her.

She was a union member years ago and always voted Democrat. But she said of Sanders, “What? Like you’re preaching giving away free college, free health care, all the stuff that our country can’t afford? Now, it sounds great. People would like to have the stuff that they don’t have, but somebody has to pay for it.”

“The rich never paid for it. It’s always the majority that has to pay, which is the middle class … and that brings our economy down over time,” she said.

“What’s this new agenda now with the attacking of guns? ‘We need to fix the gun problem.’ No, it’s a people morality problem, because people can use anything to kill or hurt somebody else.” She told The Epoch Times that she keeps a gun at home for protection.

She voted for Trump as a vote against Hillary in 2016, and she will see which Democratic candidate will win before she makes up her mind in the general election.

Her biggest issue with Trump is his personality. “He is not humble,” she said. “I think the best, smartest people are also humble. They realize what they don’t know. They don’t brag.”

Joe Juricic works in the auto industry. He voted for Biden. “I like Bernie’s sort of ideas, but I don’t think the country is ready for them yet,” he said. “Congress would be so deadlocked on those policies … whereas Biden is more of an incrementalist.”

Kevin Hulett works for an automotive supplier. He voted for Trump even though he didn’t like him in 2016. It was a vote against Hillary, he said. If it’s Sanders this year, he said he’ll definitely vote for Trump. If it’s Biden, he’s undecided.

Craig Golding is a construction worker and a Trump supporter, but he said he won’t vote. He believes Trump will win without his vote anyway. “I have never voted. I refuse to vote. All my life I’ve never voted one time. Our votes don’t matter,” he told The Epoch Times. He thinks the country needs a businessman like Trump in power.

“He is actually making people pay what they owe. It’s not a free ride. He’s making other countries pay back [what they owe],” he said.

A government worker who preferred not to be named said he voted for Biden, though he likes Sanders. He doesn’t consider himself to have a particular party affiliation. He voted for the Republican George W. Bush in his first term, but he strongly dislikes Trump.

Trump’s approach to immigration is one of several reasons he doesn’t support Trump.

He said that “since 2016, it’s been a rough road sometimes to talk about politics.” McEachran had noted the same thing.

McEachran wanted to put a Trump sign in front of his house, but his wife and son said it’s not worth the grief, because they’ve seen other homes vandalized for that.

“If I want to put a Bernie Sanders sign up on my front yard, if someone has a problem with it, they just roll their eyes and keep going,” he said. “But you put a Trump sign in your front yard, there’s so much anger on the other side of the aisle, they want to tear it down, they want to light it on fire.”