Clinton, Trump Woo Auto Vote by Vowing to Rework Trade Deals

  • Democratic nominee promises to ‘stand up to China’ on trade
  • Agreements have cut both ways with Michigan’s major industry

Clinton: I Oppose TPP Now, I’ll Oppose It as President

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both came to Michigan this week to woo the auto industry vote by promising to rework the trade deals that put U.S. jobs at risk.

“Past trade deals have been sold to the American people with rosy scenarios that didn’t pan out,” Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, said Thursday in a speech at Futuramic Tool & Engineering, an aerospace factory in the blue-collar Detroit suburb of Warren. She vowed to name a “chief trade prosecutor” and impose “targeted tariffs” on nations that violate trade deals.

QuickTake Free Trade Feud

“As president, I will stand up to China and anyone else who tries to take advantage of American workers or companies,” Clinton said.

Trump, the Republican nominee, contends that the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994 after being signed into law by President Bill Clinton, has cost the U.S. auto industry thousands of jobs and he has attacked Ford Motor Co. for building factories in Mexico. He said in a speech Monday to the Detroit Economic Club that he is willing to walk away from the trade deal if Mexico won’t agree to better terms.

Hillary Clinton supports “trade deals like Nafta, signed by her husband, that have shipped your jobs to Mexico,” Trump told an audience of mostly business executives at Detroit’s Cobo conference center Monday. “Detroit is still waiting for Hillary Clinton’s apology.”

For a story on business reaction to Trump’s tax-cut plan, click here

Trade is a hot-button issue in Michigan, which last voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 1988, but it cuts both ways among voters who have benefited and been hurt by Nafta. Auto production in Mexico will more than doubled this decade, from 2 million vehicles to 5 million, according to the Center For Automotive Research. Since 2010, nine global automakers, including General Motors Co., Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, have announced more than $24 billion in Mexican investments. They are attracted, in large part, by worker compensation that is 80 percent lower than in the United States.

“Like it or not, Nafta is not bad for everyone,” Bill Horton, a Detroit attorney, said as he left Trump’s speech Monday. “I do a lot of work for auto suppliers and they have to go where it’s cheapest.”

Reagan Democrats

Trump’s condemnation of the trade deal plays best with factory workers and members of the United Auto Workers union, many of whom live in Macomb County, the site of Clinton’s speech and home to the famous swing-voting Reagan Democrats. In the March 8 Michigan primary, Trump’s decisive win in Macomb County -- he took 48 percent of the vote to Ohio Governor John Kasich’s 22 percent -- helped him roll to a statewide victory.

Clinton lost to Bernie Sanders in the Michigan primary in an upset, after Sanders had leaned hard on his opposition to trade deals and her past support of them.

Clinton, who has been endorsed by the UAW, on Thursday reiterated her opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which President Barack Obama supports, and she promised to “stop any trade deal that kills jobs and holds down wages.”

She criticized Trump’s approach to the issue for whipping up fear.

“Trump may talk a big game on trade, but his approach is based on fear, not strength,” Clinton said to cheers. “Fear that we can’t compete with the rest of the world even when the rules are fair. Fear that our country has no choice but to hide behind walls.”

She promised to go after companies that incorporate in other countries to avoid paying U.S. taxes. That impressed Bev Hochberg, 70, a retired state worker who came to the speech with two other members of her condo association board.

“Too many companies are going overseas and we have to bring them back,” Hochberg said. “And she has a plan to do it.”

Lost Jobs

Clinton failed to win over some Futuramic workers, who stood silently watching her speech from an elevated platform on the factory floor.

Nafta “is taking work away from the American people,” said Bryan Johnson, 48, of Fraser, Michigan, a tool builder who has worked at the plant for 26 years. “There are a lot of people out there looking for work who can’t get a job because all the jobs have moved to Mexico.”

Futuramic was once an auto supplier for Ford and other automakers, but that work moved to Mexico and the company transformed itself into a defense contractor.

“We had to train those workers who took our jobs,” Kevin Griesser, 47, a lead toolmaker at the plant. “I’m not a Hillary supporter.”

Bitterness over the movement of auto jobs to Mexico resonates in the tidy working class neighborhoods that surround the factory.

Long Memories

“There are over 800,000 UAW retirees with long memories on Nafta and they couldn’t believe when they were in the factory that Slick Willy and his wife were the major proponents,” said Sean McAlinden, chief economist of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Trump must pound this home in Michigan and Ohio and he might win both states. We don’t care about immigration -- only trade and guns.”

That approach, though, risks alienating the white-collar audience Trump spoke to Monday.

“Trade is a sensitive subject here,” Amy Broglin-Peterson, an automotive logistics executive, said after Trump’s speech. “I used to work for Ford and they receive a lot of benefit from Nafta. Not everybody in the audience in that room was negatively impacted by Nafta.”

At Clinton’s speech, Trevor Sherry, 21, a machinist at Futuramic for the past two years, came away with no clear decision on who to vote for in his first presidential election. He said he’s not impressed with the choices, though his parents support Trump.

“Trump is a loose cannon and everything I’ve heard about Hillary with that huge e-mail thing makes me hesitant,” said Sherry, of Clinton Township, Michigan. “I’m confused and a bit wary for the future of this country.”

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