An Iowa voter on Monday asked Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) whether he would insert himself into the United Auto Workers strike as president. The GOP presidential hopeful responded by praising Ronald Reagan’s firing of federal workers who went on strike.
“I think Ronald Reagan gave us a great example when federal employees decided they were going to strike. He said, ‘You strike, you’re fired.’ Simple concept to me,” Scott said to laughter. “To the extent that we can use that once again, absolutely.”
It’s actually not as simple a concept as Scott suggests.
Former President Ronald Reagan famously fired the air traffic controllers when their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or PATCO, called a strike in 1981. The saga was a pivotal moment in U.S. labor relations, when the federal government signaled to corporate America that it was open season on unions. Private-sector collective bargaining has continued to decline since then.
The air traffic controllers were federal workers who didn’t have the legal right to strike or even to bargain over wages with their employer, though they were demanding raises. Reagan acted within his powers when he fired them. The thousands of controllers who participated in the strike were never allowed to return to their jobs.
“‘You strike, you’re fired.’ Simple concept to me.”
But the UAW strike, which has hit Ford, General Motors and Jeep parent company Stellantis, involves private-sector workers bargaining with private-sector employers. It is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act to fire workers for taking part in a lawful strike. So far, none of the “Big Three” have claimed that the auto worker strikes are unlawful.
A spokesperson for Scott said the candidate was not suggesting auto workers should be fired for striking.
“He was clearly talking about federal workers in that first exchange,” Matt Gorman, the spokesperson, said in an email. “Senator Scott repeatedly made clear, both at that event and others, that Joe Biden shouldn’t leave taxpayers on the hook for any labor deal.”
At the Iowa event, Scott said that President Joe Biden, the self-styled “most pro-union president” in history, is “leased by the unions,” if not “bought and paid for.”
The senator went on to criticize the decision by Biden and other Democrats to rescue defined-benefit pension plans as part of a nearly $2 billion coronavirus aid package in 2021. The plans ― negotiated over the years between unions and employers ― were on the brink of insolvency, and the move backstopped pension payments for an estimated one million workers and retirees.
“When they overpromise, taxpayers should not be on the hook,” Scott said. “They end up on the hook when the president negotiates and provides your dollars to their pensions even though you didn’t work for them.”
Scott also appeared to criticize the UAW for demanding large raises and a reduced work schedule as part of the negotiations.
“[T]hey want more money working fewer hours,” he said. “They want more benefits working fewer days. In America... that doesn’t make sense.”
The UAW workers are known legally as “economic strikers” ― they are demanding better pay and working conditions. They can’t be fired, but they can be replaced while they’re on strike. And in what unions consider a travesty of labor law, that replacement can become permanent. Once the strike is over, and if the worker hasn’t found similar work, he can apply for his old job as positions open up, but there is no guarantee he will return if a worker has taken his place.
It would be a difficult time for Ford, GM and Stellantis to find permanent replacements even if they wanted to. Workers would need to be trained to replace the strikers at the plants, and many employers are still having a hard time finding workers as it is. The unemployment rate is hovering near historic lows, at just 3.8%, despite voters’ gloomy outlook on the economy.
At this point, the UAW seems to have little fear of striking workers losing their jobs. The union has struck three plants so far ― one apiece for Ford, GM and Stellantis ― but has vowed to strike more if the companies don’t improve their offers. UAW President Shawn Fain said Monday that barring a settlement, more targets will be announced on Friday.
“We’re going to keep hitting the company where we need to, when we need to,” Fain said. “And we’re not going to keep waiting around forever while they drag this out.”