During the debate over whether the federal government should save the U.S. auto industry in late 2008, a driver rammed into my old Saturn in a late-night accident while it was parked in front of my house. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but I needed a new car.

I strongly supported the rescue effort, so I felt an obligation to look to a Detroit-based car company organized by the United Auto Workers union for a replacement. I got a Chevy Malibu — my kids called it “Dad’s Boo” — and remain happy that I did.

In organizing what critics called the “bailout” of General Motors and Chrysler, President Barack Obama was defying popular sentiment. Yet what was in many ways the most radical step he took to revive a U.S. economy in free fall turned out to be one of his most politically beneficial initiatives.

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The effort was far closer to what could be called “socialism” than anything in Obama’s health-care plan, although he was, in fact, trying to keep the auto companies under private ownership. But socialism or not, the rescue was key to his success in 2012 in carrying Michigan and Ohio, states that would elude Hillary Clinton in 2016.

And it worked — witness GM’s $35 billion in North American profits over the past three years. The taxpayers got most of their money back and, by certain measures, even turned a modest profit off the government’s investment. Either way, a catastrophe was averted. It wasn’t just two big companies that were saved. So were suppliers whose collapse would have devastated the Midwest.

My support for the bailout was rooted in practical economic concerns: Our economy was teetering and could not afford the damage an auto-sector implosion would inflict. But my passion for it came from a concern for the lives of the workers involved and a lifelong respect for the UAW.

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Unions get knocked for being unconcerned about the health of the companies they organize. The UAW showed how untrue this is. It made sweeping concessions to management to persuade federal officials to undertake the investment of public money — and to keep the companies alive.

Among the gripes of UAW workers who struck GM this week is the tiered wage system that Neal Boudette described well in the New York Times: “Workers hired before 2007 make about $31 an hour, and can retire with a lifelong pension. Those hired after them (now more than a third of the work force) start at about $17 an hour and can work their way up to about $29 an hour over eight years. They also have to rely on 401(k) retirement accounts instead of pensions. In addition, G.M. uses temporary workers (about 7 percent of the staff) who earn about $15 an hour, and do not have vision or dental benefits.”

The rank and file don’t like the idea of people doing the same labor at radically different pay levels. And then there are the plant closures that have slashed about 14,000 North American jobs, as well as the announcement that the Chevy Blazer would be built in Mexico.

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Symbolically and substantively, the closure this year of the legendary GM plant in Lordstown, Ohio, that had produced Chevy Cruzes was an especially heavy blow — and it flew in the face of President Trump’s promise in a 2017 speech in nearby Youngstown that factory jobs are “all coming back. They’re all coming back.” So confident was Trump that he told his supporters not to sell their homes.

The bottom line is that the strikers are fighting not only for greater fairness and a larger share of the company’s success but also for work itself. Too late to avert the strike, GM finally put an offer on the table to begin addressing some of these issues. But the rank and file are restive for more, and for good reason. Those of us who supported keeping GM alive a decade ago — and put our wallets where our mouths, pens and votes were — didn’t do so to make it easier for management to outsource jobs or hold down pay and benefits forever. Every Democratic candidate for president should be joining the UAW’s picket lines to drive that point home.

The cliche is singularly appropriate in this case: The struggle for employment, pay and benefits in the auto industry is where the rubber meets the road in our too often very abstract discussion of the challenges facing U.S. wage earners in an economy undergoing rapid transformation. The battle at GM is a fight that unions and workers cannot afford to lose.

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