Now & Then has sadly drawn to a close, but I’m hoping to keep the Time Machine column going, albeit in a slightly different style. Building off of my focus on archives last week, I want to zoom in on a single source that can help us make sense of the relevance of a top political or legal news story. This week, I’m exploring President Jimmy Carter’s May 17th, 1977 speech to the United Auto Workers annual convention in Los Angeles.
The contemporary relevance here: Last week, 12,700 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) walked out at three factories in Detroit. President Biden, a historically pro-labor politician, finds himself in a difficult bind over how to intervene in the growing standoff.
I was curious about when other liberal presidents had to contend with tumult in the UAW ranks. I found an intriguing analog in the early goings of President Carter’s administration.
In May 1977, four months into his term, Carter traveled to Los Angeles to speak at the UAW’s annual convention. Here are Carter’s full remarks, as found in the UCSB American Presidency Project Archives. A close-reading of his speech reveals a number of pressures that parallel those Biden currently faces.
Carter began his address, before 4,000 delegates at the Los Angeles Convention Center, with a joke: “I’ve been talking a lot about conservation, lately, and efficiency in automobiles. When I got off the plane, I was greeted and rode in one of your finest products–a very large, very black Cadillac limousine.”
Carter had indeed come into office with an aggressive strategy to offset the brutal pollution record of U.S. automakers. He was eager to save American energy amid a cessation in access to Middle Eastern petroleum, an intensifying environmental movement, and a business imperative to keep pace with the surging Asian car market, which had embraced smaller and more fuel-efficient cars.
A lynchpin of Carter’s strategy to save energy and revitalize the American car market was a “gas-guzzler tax,” a controversial proposal to tax carmakers who produced low-mileage vehicles – an added cost to UAW employers that ostensibly made them less likely to increase pay and benefits.
The limo, then, was an ironic touch to the proceedings. Carter had traveled in the behemoth, according to the Carter Library’s Daily Diary entry for the day of the speech, alongside California’s young and idealistic governor, Jerry Brown and pioneering Black Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley – a further metaphor, perhaps, for the growing divide between the aging, New Deal-raised UAW leadership and the flashier new brand of Democrats fighting for the driver’s seat.
“We’ve got to improve the efficiency of our cars, and that’s why I proposed a gas-guzzler tax,” Carter told the likely-skeptical crowd. “I have proposed tough but fair air pollution standards.
He also argued that far larger scientific and economic forces were responsible for the shift. “It’s absolutely inevitable, no matter who’s the President of the United States, that we will have to shift to more efficient automobiles with a clean exhaust.”
Biden, too, faces an awkward dynamic with the UAW due to his attempts to curb car pollution –in this case, over his support for electric vehicles. The Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s biggest piece of domestic legislation, offers substantial tax credits for consumers who purchase electric cars, which take fewer employees to assemble. One of the UAW’s central arguments for higher pay and better benefits surrounds the job insecurity of the new electric vehicle (EV) marketplace.
Biden’s challengers are attempting to capitalize on the EV wedge. Former Vice President Mike Pence, for example, told Newsmax last week, “This green agenda that’s using taxpayer dollars to drive our automotive economy into EVs is understandably causing great anxiety among UAW members.”
In addition to facing similar political tensions over emissions guidelines, Carter – like Biden – also was confronted with a destabilizing turnover in UAW leadership.
At the 1977 convention, retiring UAW President Leonard Woodcock was replaced by Douglas Fraser. Woodcock had been a crucial Carter backer during the 1976 presidential election. An aggressive negotiator famed for a successful 1970 strike against General Motors, Woodcock had agreed to give up the reins of UAW as he hit the mandatory retirement age of 65.
Woodcock was well on his way to becoming a crucial foreign policy hand in the Carter administration. He had already traveled to Vietnam in March 1977 as a special envoy to search for the more than 2,000 MIAs still unaccounted for from the erstwhile War.
Carter would go on in July 1977 to name Woodcock as Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to China, replacing George H.W. Bush. From that perch, Woodcock would lead the efforts to normalize relations with China and would become the first post-WWII Ambassador to China. The Woodcock-Carter partnership was quite literally in the process of changing the world.
If Woodcock and Carter were politically entwined, the incoming Fraser was a bit of a wildcard. Fraser, who had served as the powerful Michigan head of UAW before seeking the presidency, had been a supporter of one of Carter’s Democratic Party challengers in 1976, the more liberal Arizona Representative Morris Udall. Fraser was particularly keen on a national health insurance bill, which he wasn’t sure the comparatively moderate Carter could deliver.
Although Fraser wouldn’t formally be elected until the day after Carter’s address, the President recognized the way the wind was blowing during his speech: “The next president of the UAW has big shoes to fill. I won’t predict who’s going to win your election tomorrow, although I noticed that Doug Fraser doesn’t look too worried.”
We’ve seen a similar UAW turnover in power in 2023. Outgoing President Ray Curry, who departed the role in March, is a loyal Biden supporter who has already joined the President’s Export Council and who passionately touted the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.
New UAW President Shawn Fain, in contrast, has effectively sidelined Biden from negotiations, telling the press, “This battle is not about the President” and withholding any 2024 presidential endorsement.
Lastly, Carter and Biden share an economic environment rife with labor anxiety. Mind you, the 1977 economy was far more tenuous. Where unemployment is currently around 3.8%, at the time of Carter’s address the rate was almost double that, at over 7%. Inflation in 1977, too, was almost double the current metrics, at 6.5%.
Carter was well aware that union workers would be particularly affected by the volatility in the national financial system, and he attempted some straight talk with the delegates.“These inflation figures are too high for comfort,” Carter admitted, “And as you know, also, inflation falls most heavily on people with modest means and people who’ve worked all their lives for a little security and who then find that security threatened. Inflation robs us of our confidence in the future.”
Carter suggested, however, that the discouraging economic data would not distract him from his main domestic policy goals, including his hopes for nationalized healthcare and his plan to introduce a labor reform bill that would better protect unionizing workers.
“I’m committed to the phasing-in of a workable national health insurance system,” Carter declared to enthusiastic applause, before giving the UAW (and Woodcock) substantial credit for the liberal activism that had pushed the issue. “It’s certainly not difficult to guess which union has made national health insurance a national issue. Beginning many months ago, Leonard Woodcock has given me an education about the need and the possible ways for meeting it.”
Despite the UAW applause for Carter’s national health care proposal, the 1977 cauldron of inflationary concerns led to a high degree of cynicism among the UAW delegates about the likelihood of Carter’s worker protections becoming law, particularly given his simultaneous attempts to embrace lower-emission vehicles.
Even if inflation isn’t as glaring today, the specter of consumer cost increases also looms large in the UAW’s burgeoning strike and in current UAW President Fain’s goals. Fain’s stated goal of a 36% pay hike from automakers is largely predicated on adjusting for years of inflation.
I tracked down the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour episode from the day after Carter’s address, in which the program’s correspondents interviewed a cross-section of UAW delegates on the floor of the convention center following the speech. The frustrations definitely strike a familiar tone.
“I don’t think he’s carrying out on his policies for the people. I think he’s carrying out on policies for big business and not for those of the people,” one UAW delegate stated.
Another delegate zeroed in on the “gas guzzler’ tax, arguing that the focus on smaller and more fuel-efficient cars would lead to firings: “If he introduces that gas guzzler bill, he may be faced with more unemployment than what we have now due to the fact that the imports will be coming in, people will be buying imports; our people will be laid off.”
The UAW delegate interviews were indeed a bad potent – the Carter-UAW relationship ultimately didn’t turn out great. In 1996, historian Martin Halperin even wrote a Presidential Studies Quarterly article, “Jimmy Carter and the UAW: The Failure of an Alliance,” that explored how the Carter administration’s ultimate failure to pass meaningful labor reform and healthcare policy pushed Fraser further away from the Carter administration and helped pave the way for the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan.
Matters were decidedly not helped by the fact that inflation went truly wild in the later years of the Carter administration, breaking 14% in 1980.
Only time will tell whether the Biden administration manages to wrangle the interlocking issues of EV vehicles, a more insurgent UAW leadership, and inflation concerns to help support a peaceful solution to the current UAW drama.
For a captivating account of the dramas that faced the American vehicle market in the late 1970s and early 1980s, check out David Halberstam’s 1986 The Reckoning.
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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