Tim Scott and Nikki Haley attack unions as UAW strike threatens to escalate ahead of GOP debate

Key Points
  • Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said striking workers should be fired, pointing to President Ronald Reagan's termination of striking air traffic controllers.
  • Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Tuesday has proclaimed she is a "union buster."
  • Former President Donald Trump is courting a UAW endorsement while at the same time attacking the union's leadership.
  • The UAW strike could escalate ahead of the Republican primary debate next week.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., speaks during a meet and greet, Monday, Sept. 18, 2023, in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall | AP

Several Republican presidential candidates have gone on the attack against unions in response to the United Auto Workers' strike, despite strong support for organized labor among the American public.

The two GOP candidates who have taken the hardest line are from South Carolina, a state with a notorious anti-union reputation. The Palmetto State has become a hub for foreign automakers that have taken advantage of the South's lower labor costs.

Sen. Tim Scott on Monday said striking workers should be fired, saying he would emulate President Ronald Reagan who terminated more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981.

"Ronald Reagan gave us a great example when federal employees decided they were going to strike," Scott told voters during an event in Fort Dodge, Iowa. "He said, 'You strike, you're fired.' Simple concept to me. To the extent that we can use that once again, absolutely."

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley delivers her political soapbox speech at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S. August 12, 2023. 
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

Former Gov. Nikki Haley on Tuesday proclaimed she was a "union buster," pointing to her record of recruiting foreign car manufacturers such as Mercedes Benz and Volvo to the Palmetto State.

"I didn't want to bring in companies that were unionized simply because I didn't want to have that change the environment in our state," Haley said during an interview with Fox News.

Haley said President Joe Biden had "emboldened" the UAW by proclaiming he is the "most pro-union president in American history." She said the striking autoworkers' demands for a 40% pay raise will drive up prices. "We're all going to suffer from this," Haley said.

Scott and Haley are taking a hard line against organized labor despite the fact that two-thirds of Americans approve of unions, according to a Gallup poll published in August. The UAW strike also enjoys solid support with 54% of U.S. adults approving the work stoppage, according to a Morning Consult poll.

The autoworkers strike could escalate ahead of the Republican primary debate next week at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

UAW President Shawn Fain has warned Ford Motor, General Motors and Stellantis that the union will target more plants if "serious progress" is not made in negotiations by noon ET Friday.

At least five other Republican candidates have weighed in on the strike, including frontrunner Donald Trump. They have largely sought to lay the blame for the walkout on Biden, who has publicly sided with the UAW by calling for the automakers to share record profits with their workers.

Trump, for his part, is skipping the second GOP debate to visit Detroit and speak with union members. Trump is courting a UAW endorsement while at the same time attacking the union's leadership.

"The autoworkers are being sold down the river by their leadership, and their leadership should endorse Trump," the former president told NBC News in an interview that aired Sunday.

Trump claimed the Biden push to transition to electric vehicles will result in manufacturing jobs shifting to China.

Michigan was key to Trump's 2016 presidential victory over Hillary Clinton and his loss to Biden in 2020. Trump and Biden are in a dead heat among registered voters, according to the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll.

Former Vice President Mike Pence said the strikes are a "reflection of the failed economic policies of the Biden administration," sidestepping union claims that the automakers have failed to share windfall profits with their workers.

Pence largely echoed his former boss's attack on Biden's electric vehicle push.

"I guarantee you that one of the things that's driving that strike is that Bidenomics and their green energy, electric vehicle agenda is good for Beijing and bad for Detroit, and American autoworkers know it," Pence said on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said UAW workers deserve a raise but criticized their demand for a reduced 32-hour workweek at 40 hours of pay.

"I don't want to pay them for not working and I think that's where the union is going to lose this argument with the American public and hopefully they back off of that," the presidential candidate told reporters after a town hall in New Hampshire on Wednesday.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has said little about the autoworkers' strike. Like Trump and Pence, the candidate this week criticized Biden's electric vehicle push but did not comment on UAW's demands.

"With respect to the auto industry and the autoworkers, one of the things that's a big threat to that is Biden's push to impose electric vehicle mandates — the reality is that's not where the market is," DeSantis said in a television station interview in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday.

"We want to preserve the ability of automakers to actually produce the type of vehicles that people want to buy. That will mean more autoworker jobs," DeSantis said.

The governor has been hostile to organized labor in Florida, signing a law in May that restricted teacher and public-sector employee unions.

Former pharmaceutical company CEO Vivek Ramaswamy said he sympathizes with autoworkers whose wages have stagnated. But Ramaswamy said the UAW should direct its anger at the Biden administration rather than the automobile companies.

"I understand the frustration, but I think union bosses may be directing that ire in the wrong direction when it belongs at the feet of our current federal government," Ramaswamy said Friday at an event in Washington, D.C.