Voters in union households could end up being one of the most important groups in key 2024 battleground states. But they are far from a cohesive bloc.

A series of focus groups highlighted the deep divides among union voters and their families in states like Michigan, where President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are both courting them. And they illustrated why the voters largely plan to prioritize their own political views far above their union affiliation as they consider who to support in November.

The battle over union households in Michigan is particularly important given that Biden won the state by less than 3 percentage points in 2020. Calling himself the most “pro-union” president in recent memory, Biden joined autoworkers on the picket line last year and has repeatedly courted union workers and their leadership on the trail. Months after that trip, the UAW endorsed Biden

But Trump is making a big play for unions too. He met with the Teamsters earlier this year as he sought their endorsement, and he blasted UAW leadership during the strike for not representing their membership. 

Recent polls show Biden has the edge with voters in union households, but with leads inside the margin of error — down from his edge in 2020 exit polling.

Not one of the 15 participants in the focus groups, which included Michigan union members and those with union members in their households, said they considered Trump’s policies pro-union. And only Democratic voters said they considered Biden’s policies pro-union.

Given the choice between only Biden and Trump, seven focus group participants chose Biden, six chose Trump and two wouldn’t vote. When offered more choices, the two who didn’t plan to vote each chose independent Robert F. Kennedy and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. 

“Although these Michigan respondents all come from union households, most don’t define themselves as ‘union voters’ or take their political cues from union leadership,” said Rich Thau, president of Engagious, who moderated sessions produced in collaboration with Syracuse University and Sago for the NBC News Deciders Focus Group series.

The participants in the focus groups all said they are basing their votes far more on conventional issues like the economy, immigration, abortion and democracy than any feelings about their union background. 

“I would vote for Trump. However, I don’t think that he has helped our union workers very much,” said Jessica T., a 38-year-old Southfield resident whose husband is in a construction union. “He did kind of hurt our union workers, but I still feel strongly that Trump would lead our country better than Biden would.” 

Andrea G., a 38-year-old from Warren who is a member of the United Auto Workers and plans to support Biden, said that “being a parent, being a mom, being a woman and being middle class is what fuels my vote mostly.”

A lack of enthusiasm for both Biden and Trump

Like other groups that have participated in the NBC News Deciders Focus Group series, these union-affiliated voters largely had a dim view of both major party presidential candidates. 

Asked to say the first thing that came to mind when they heard Biden’s name, just two of the 15 shared anything remotely positive. The rest said words or phrases like “absent-minded,” “grandpa,” and “weak.” Just three shared positive views about Trump, with the rest of the participants using terms like “untrustworthy,” “dumpster fire,” and “bully.”

Many of the voters framed their support for one candidate mostly in terms of their opposition to the other contender, even when asked to name positive traits about the candidate they support. 

Paul B., a 66-year-old retired UAW member from Detroit, said he’s backing Biden because “he’s a better alternative than the one that’s running against him, because he’s not trying to cause violence within the country, he’s not turning the people against each other as Trump is. Trump is very hateful.” 

Francisca B., a 58-year-old teacher’s union member from Pontiac, agreed about Biden: “I feel he’s too old to be the president, but I would rather he be in charge than Trump.”

It was a similar story for Trump supporters.

Angela G., a 55-year-old from Sterling Heights whose husband is a UAW member, cited Trump’s business record as she delivered a less-than-full-throated endorsement. 

“Neither one of them are perfect, of course, he’s not perfect. He has his faults, but I just think he does want to see the American people succeed,” she said of Trump. 

Jessica T. lamented that under Biden,“us Americans have gone downhill,” and said she’s worried about the impact of another four years of the Biden administration when she thinks about her daughters’ future.  

“I just feel like Biden has divided so many of us within our own country. Not just from country to country, but our own country. We should be united. We should all be working together,” she said. “We are so much worse off than we were when Trump left us. It’s scary.”

Amid the lukewarm endorsements of Biden and Trump, two respondents said they wouldn’t vote if faced with choosing between the two major-party candidates. 

Colleen T., a 38-year-old registered Democrat from Grayling whose father is a UAW member, said she wouldn’t back her party’s nominee in a head-to-head contest, and chose Stein on a five-way ballot. 

“It’s going to be a dumpster fire either way, but I don’t think my vote’s going to matter,” she said. “It’s just going to be another politician. It’s like choosing between a bag of garbage and another bag of garbage.” 

“I think Trump’s going to divide the country even further than it is now, and he’s going to descend into violence like he did last time he was in office,” Colleen T. continued. “And Biden, it would just be more of what we have now with inflation, and with the borders being opened up and with bills that are being passed for people that aren’t the working people.”

Unions and workers

Partisanship didn’t just color how these voters plan to vote. It affected their views of how their union represented them.

Biden voters were more likely to say they felt well-represented by their unions than those backing Trump. 

“The bargaining power has led to much better health care benefits than I would’ve received. And just general benefits in general, as far as vacation, sick time, that sort of thing, and also a more secure job,” said Mary L., a 44-year-old who is in an administrative professional’s union. 

But that wasn’t a unanimous opinion, even from Biden voters. Paul B., the retired UAW member backing Biden, lamented that he didn’t believe unions are putting workers first. 

“The unions sold the workers out years ago, even before any of these presidents were in office. They let the big corporations come in and feed them a handful of crap,” he said. 

Republicans were split too. Some said that while they didn’t believe their unions represented them or their family members politically, they were happy with the representation outside of politics. 

“As a worker? They’re well-represented. In politics, I don’t think so,” said Debra P., a 60-year-old Republican Trump backer whose husband is in the UAW.  

When choosing their candidate for the fall, voters broadly didn’t prioritize whether they believed their candidate was “pro-union.” That said, Biden voters broadly praised his work with unions.

“In the last few years, I’ve watched our bargaining power become stronger, the right-to-work laws are starting to get repealed, and our salaries are going up,” said Kurtis S., a 36-year-old teachers union member from Davison. “He’s starting to listen to us, I’m starting to feel like our voices are being heard.” 

But some Trump voters outlined a different test: They saw the former president as not necessarily pro-union, but pro-worker.

“I think he’s pro-get people back to work, it doesn’t matter if you’re union or not. If he was pro-union, he would have done what Biden did, go on the assembly line for a photo opportunity, but he’s not like that. He does good work for the majority of the people, he doesn’t go for the photo op,” said Larry P., a 66-year-old retired UAW member from Livonia.

“He wants companies to make money, and then their workers work and they make money.” 

Margaret Talev, the director of Syracuse University’s Institute for Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship in Washington, noted that this distinction “bears watching,” especially as many voters questioned whether their union leaders shared all their priorities. 

“It may largely be a rationalization or picking up on talking points by union voters who already prefer Trump,” she said. “But talking about being pro-worker also may resonate more broadly in this era of increased focus on the individual and decreased faith in institutions.”

Concerns over electric vehicles

Amid debates over whether a shift toward electric vehicles will be a net positive or negative for union workers, the panel, which included voters affiliated with both auto unions and other unions, was largely skeptical. 

The only two people who indicated they felt positively about the new federal standards aimed at boosting electric and hybrid vehicles were members of teachers unions. The rest, of all political stripes, raised concerns about the push toward electric vehicles.

“The promise of all these new jobs that would be created by going EV, I don’t know if that’s really going to be fulfilled. I think it’s more of a trade-off,” said Todd G., a 45-year-old Biden supporter and teacher from Canton.

But no one agreed with Trump’s recent, controversial statement that there would be a “bloodbath” in the auto industry if he wasn’t elected president.

And overall, no participant said this debate would weigh on their vote.

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