Asked About Auto Walkout, Tim Scott Praises Reagan’s Firing of Workers

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, speaks at a campaign event Phenix Hall in Concord, N.H., on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. (John Tully/The New York Times)

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina took a harsher stance toward striking autoworkers Monday than many of his fellow Republican presidential candidates, saying it did not make sense for workers to want higher pay for shorter workweeks and noting approvingly that President Ronald Reagan had fired federal employees for striking.

“I think Ronald Reagan gave us a great example when federal employees decided they were going to strike,” Scott said at a campaign event in Iowa, in response to a voter who had asked whether he would “insert” himself into the United Auto Workers talks as president. “He said, ‘You strike, you’re fired.’ Simple concept to me, to the extent that we can use that once again.”

He went on to criticize federal funding for private-sector unions’ pension plans and said with regard to the UAW dispute: “The other things that are really important in that deal is that they want more money working fewer hours. They want more benefits working fewer days.”

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In “America, that doesn’t make sense,” he said. “That’s not common sense.”

Members of the United Auto Workers union went on a targeted strike Friday against three automakers: General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. The workers are seeking raises of up to 40% — which would correspond with pay increases for their companies’ executives over the past decade — and four-day workweeks, along with cost-of-living adjustments and a restoration of previously forfeited pensions.

Despite Scott’s approving reference to Reagan, who fired thousands of striking air traffic controllers in 1981, United Auto Workers members are not federal employees and cannot be fired by the president. Federal labor law also protects them from being fired by their employers for striking.

Scott’s campaign emphasized the rest of his answer — his rejection of taxpayer funding for any deal — and said the Reagan portion had referred to federal workers, not the UAW. But it declined to respond on the record when asked why he had brought up Reagan’s firing of federal workers if that had no relevance to the UAW dispute.

“Sen. Scott has repeatedly made clear, both at that event and others, that Joe Biden shouldn’t leave taxpayers on the hook for any labor deal,” a campaign spokesperson, Matt Gorman, said.

Scott’s criticism of the workers’ demands set him apart from many other Republican candidates who have commented on the UAW strike, though not all of them have weighed in. While most of the other candidates have been critical of unions in general, with particular vitriol for teachers unions, they have generally expressed sympathy with the autoworkers’ economic concerns.

Former President Donald Trump is actively trying to court the striking workers while denouncing their leaders; he has cast the workers as victims of Biden administration rules intended to ensure that two-thirds of new passenger cars sold in the United States are electric by 2032.

Three other candidates, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota, have also brought up the push for electric vehicles in offering sympathy, directly or obliquely, for the workers. Pence has emphasized inflation, too, while denying that the growing gap between workers’ and executives’ salaries is a factor — although the workers themselves have cited it.

One exception to the trend was Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, who has proudly described herself as a “union buster.” She told Fox News after the UAW strike began that it would increase auto prices and hurt consumers, and that President Joe Biden was to blame because his support had encouraged unions to make unreasonable demands.

“When you have ‘the most pro-union president’ and he touts that he is emboldening the unions, this is what you get,” she said. “And I’ll tell you who pays for it is the taxpayers.”

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