Like any good Democratic politician running for office in the heartland of America’s automotive industry, Hill Harper has cast himself as an unswerving ally of the United Auto Workers, the sector’s biggest labor union.
An actor who is currently running for Michigan’s soon-to-be-open U.S. Senate seat in 2024, Harper has vocally backed the UAW in its contentious contract negotiations with Detroit’s Big Three automakers—which resulted in a strike that began on Friday.
The CSI:NY actor, who has held important positions in the Screen Actors Guild, has often touted his labor cred on the campaign trail. What he has not mentioned so far, however, is his history as a prominent booster of one of the UAW’s most hated foes: Toyota.
On a number of occasions, Harper was a promoter for the Japanese auto giant. The world’s biggest automaker, Toyota is not only a fierce competitor to the Big Three, but the operator of 14 manufacturing plants in the United States, none of which are unionized.
The antipathy among many U.S. auto workers for brands like Toyota—and their rejection of union labor—is hard to overstate. If Harper were to drive one of the vehicles he touted to a UAW-owned lot, he wouldn’t be allowed to park it: since 2010, the union has banned foreign, non-union made cars from its properties.
In the 2010s, Harper featured in several promotional campaigns for Lexus, the luxury car division of Toyota. In 2011, he narrated and appeared in a TV ad for a new Lexus model, and also began co-hosting a Lexus-sponsored program called “Verses and Flow,” which the company called “a 30-minute variety show that features spoken word and music talent, engineered by Lexus.” The show ended in 2017.
A self-described race car enthusiast, Harper could be found talking up the superiority of Toyota and Lexus brands on TV and in print, drawing on his own experiences driving them. He once told Motor Trend magazine he was given a new Lexus to try out every few months, because he did voiceover work for the company.
In 2009, Harper said he had owned a Toyota Prius since 2005 and called the hybrid a “great vehicle.” In 2011, he appeared on local news in the San Francisco Bay Area for a segment hyping a new Lexus model as “the most fuel-efficient luxury car available.”
In at least one instance, Harper was a walking advertisement for the company. In May 2012, Harper appeared in Motor Trend, posing alongside a Toyota race car emblazoned with his name, wearing head-to-toe Toyota Racing gear with his name on it. A month earlier, Harper had participated in a promotional celebrity auto race hosted by Toyota.
Through the years, Toyota also hyped Harper. In 2011, it gave him the “Lexus Pursuit of Perfection” award at an event in Atlanta. In 2016, Toyota donated $10,000 to Harper’s charitable foundation to benefit Black youth. He posed with the check.
In response to questions from The Daily Beast, Harper spokesman Karthik Ganapathy said that “as an accomplished entertainer and philanthropist, Hill Harper has partnered with dozens of brands, companies, and non-profits over the years.”
“In this race, Hill has been the only unequivocal advocate for working people including striking UAW workers, unlike other candidates who have sided with management in implying that workers are being unreasonable in their demands,” Ganapathy said.
That comment is almost certainly in reference to a tweet that Harper’s primary rival, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), sent on Friday, in which she said both sides of the strike should not let “the perfect be the enemy of the good” in negotiations.
In a Saturday tweet, Harper seemed to rebuke Slotkin, if not by name, when he argued that workers “aren’t asking for ‘perfect.’”
Slotkin, who is the favorite in the primary, has been endorsed by a number of Michigan labor unions, and appeared on UAW picket lines in Michigan over the weekend.
Harper’s campaign also said that his only auto industry promotional contract was with General Motors, though it declined to provide detailed information about the extent of his relationship with Toyota.
For a Michigan politician, Harper’s ties to a foreign automaker are unusual on multiple levels—and potentially damaging to the pro-union, Detroit-made brand he is attempting to cultivate in the Michigan Senate race.
Best known for his roles in CSI:NY and The Good Doctor, Harper is running as a progressive in a primary field where Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a center-left swing district representative, is the favorite. The general election contest in closely divided Michigan will likely be one of the most competitive in the country in 2024.
While it’s virtually unheard of to see a major candidate in Michigan who was once on the payroll of a foreign auto company, it’s rare to see a major candidate, from either party, who would be seen rolling up anywhere in the state in a foreign car.
Sensing the optics, Harper has added a Detroit-made vehicle to his garage—but well after launching his campaign.
On Sept. 5, an employee for a Ford dealer in Southfield, Michigan, posted a photo on Facebook with Harper, proudly saying he’d helped the actor purchase a brand-new Ford F-150 hybrid pick-up truck. (Harper’s spokesman did not answer a question about whether he still owns any Toyota or Lexus vehicles.)
But the UAW strike adds a fresh dimension to Harper’s past paid boosting of Toyota and Lexus brands. Unionized workers for Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis—formerly Chrysler—have been negotiating with the companies for months over a new deal governing the pay and working conditions for some 150,000 employees.
With workers testifying that their wages have failed to reflect their work or keep up with economic conditions—not to mention keep up with CEO pay increases—the UAW is demanding 40 percent wage increases over four years, along with reinstated pension benefits.
The Big Three have slammed those demands as unreasonable, and have countered with an offer to raise pay anywhere from 14.5 to 20 percent. Rejecting that offer, the UAW is organizing targeted strikes at rotating auto manufacturing facilities around the country.
Harper has tried to align himself with the workers and big labor unions.
“Auto workers are battling against inadequate wages, limited benefits, and insecure job conditions,” Harper said in a Monday tweet. “This is a fight for real cost of living increases, to make every auto job a good job, and to secure jobs as we transition to electric vehicles (EVs).”
After the strike became official Friday morning, Harper’s social media activity formed a stream of impassioned support for the UAW, featuring stridently pro-union statements and photos of himself joining striking workers on the picket lines around Michigan.
“For too long, corporations have undercut labor to pad their bottom line,” he declared on Twitter, “and it ends now.”
With labor issues in the auto industry likely to be front of mind for Michigan voters this election season, Harper’s association with Toyota may be difficult for some to stomach.
For decades, Toyota and the UAW have had a contentious and confrontational relationship. The company operates 14 manufacturing plants in the U.S., exclusively in states with less union-friendly laws.
In 2009, around when Harper began promoting Toyota’s products, the company closed its final unionized plant in the country—located in Fremont, California—causing over 5,000 UAW members to lose their jobs.
The union’s leaders slammed the decision in scathing terms. Its president at the time, Ron Gettelfinger, called it “devastating,” saying workers “deserve better than to be abandoned by this company, which has profited so richly from their labor, their productivity, and their commitment to quality.”
More recently, Toyota found itself on the opposite side of the UAW in a debate over legislation, proposed by House Democrats, to increase the size of tax credits up to $12,500 for consumers who purchase union-made electrical vehicles.
While Harper’s current rhetoric and positions are stark in comparison to his long and warm relationship with Toyota, it is not the first time that the candidate’s background has seemed mismatched to the brand he is building on the campaign trail.
In July, The Daily Beast reported that Harper’s narrative about his current ties to the state was questionable. In his launch video, addressed to his son, he talked about the importance of raising him in Michigan—but until he launched his campaign, Harper was raising his son in Seattle, Washington. Other records indicated he was based in Seattle and in California, despite owning a Michigan property.