DETROIT — In Michigan politics, the main event, of course, is the down-to-the-wire duel between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in next Tuesday’s GOP presidential primary.
But an intriguing undercard, with potentially broad implications for the general election, is developing in the deepening confrontation between Romney and the state’s diminished but still potent labor colossus, the United Auto Workers.
As he’s campaigned across the state since last week, Romney has notably escalated both the tone and extent of his criticism of labor unions in general and the UAW in particular. In a speech before tea party activists in Oakland County on Thursday night, Romney excoriated “labor bosses” and “labor stooges” and pledged to pursue an array of policies anathema to organized labor, including “right-to-work” laws that bar closed union shops.
On Friday morning, the UAW fired back with a raucous rally on the roof of a parking garage across the street from Ford Field, the football stadium where Romney would deliver a speech to the Detroit Economic Club a few hours later. Despite a coating of slush and ice from an overnight storm, and a cold, steady drizzle, some 250 members from the UAW and other unions turned out to hear speakers slam Romney and praise President Obama for providing federal financing during the industry’s restructuring.
Obama “stood with us when we had our backs to the wall,” UAW President Bob King declared. To underscore the point, the UAW parked two lines of American-made cars with placards on their windshields that spelled out “Mitt Romney: Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” a reference to the headline of his 2009 New York Times op-ed piece opposing the auto-industry bailout.
The sharpening conflict with organized labor is one of several fronts on which Romney has moved toward more confrontationally conservative positions as he struggles to regain the initiative in the tumultuous GOP race. Just as Romney earlier embraced hard-line positions on immigration to draw sharp ideological distinctions with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, he may be highlighting an adversarial stance toward organized labor partly to contrast with Rick Santorum, who sought to maintain better relations with labor as a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.
In a release last week, the Romney campaign stamped Santorum as “Big Labor’s favorite senator” and derided him for voting with unions on issues such as right-to-work and the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires contractors to use union employees or to pay comparable wages on federal projects.
Without mentioning Santorum, Romney unfurled an extended denunciation of labor leaders during the tea party forum on Thursday night.
“Look, unions play an important role; I have no problem with union members and feel they make a real contribution,” he said. “But let me tell you, the union bosses, that’s a different group. And they gave a lot of money to Barack Obama to get him elected, and they are going to give a lot more to try and get him reelected. And so he takes care of them.”
As evidence of that charge, Romney cited the ownership stake the UAW received in Chrysler and General Motors during the bankruptcy process, Obama’s appointment of “labor stooges” to the National Labor Relations Board, and his resistance to right-to-work legislation. “I believe in right-to-work; I will fight for right-to-work,” Romney declared, before adding later that “hopefully, we’ll have national right-to-work” legislation.
Romney moderated his tone during his economic speech on Friday, but strikingly returned to criticism of the unions in response to a question about his electability. If nominated, Romney insisted, he would make the argument that Obama’s policies favoring unions “all made it harder for our economy to recover.”
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who’s supporting Romney, said in an interview before the speech that the tough line on unions was one of several issues, such as tax cuts, that would help Romney with the tea party movement, which is expected to cast a long shadow in Tuesday’s primary. “The right to work is a hot button for the tea party, so if right-to-work is your hot button, press Mitt Romney,” Schuette said. “If tax cuts are your hot button, press Mitt Romney.… He’s talking tea party language.”
But such heated antiunion rhetoric, in contrast to the more muted approach that Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has taken, also carries risks for Romney herepotentially in a GOP primary, but more likely in November if he wins the nomination. In 2008, exit polls showed that voters from union households cast 28 percent of the ballots in the Republican presidential primary, with Romney and Sen. John McCain of Arizona each capturing a third. Romney’s notable tilt right on union issues could provide an opening in that constituency for Santorum, who stresses his blue-collar roots.
The issue could be more resonant in November. Organized labor’s political clout has waned along with its declining membership, but unions remain a significant force in Michigan and other key Rust Belt battlegrounds like Ohio and Wisconsin. In the general election, union households cast about one-third of Michigan’s ballots. Obama got 67 percent of their votes, but McCain still captured 31 percent.
The UAW’s King on Friday predicted that Obama’s share could rise in 2012 if he’s paired against Romney. “A lot of our members, who sometimes are independents, are not going to vote for someone who didn’t support us,” he said. Michigan’s labor movement may also attempt to encourage turnout by qualifying a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to bar right-to-work legislation.
Nick Singelis, who described himself as a conservative critical of Obama, left Romney’s economic speech on Friday shaking his head over the candidate’s tough language on labor. “Whoever is his communication director needs some better words,” said Singelis, the chief of staff for a hospital chain, as he filed off of the football field on which the candidate spoke. “You say ‘right-to-work’ in Michigan, you turn off 50 to 60 percent of the state. You don’t say that. You don’t say that in a restaurant.”
Perhaps an even greater threat for Romney in Michigan is that his feud with the UAW will keep alive his opposition to the auto bailout. Romney wrote a Detroit News newspaper op-ed last week reaffirming his belief that the companies should have entered bankruptcy before receiving public aid, and insisting that the federal intervention was designed mostly to protect the unions, not to revive the companies. “While a lot of workers and investors got the short end of the stick, Obama’s union allies — and his major campaign contributors — reaped reward upon reward, all on the taxpayer’s dime,” Romney wrote.
Nationally, a narrow majority of Americans still say they oppose the bailout, according to a Gallup survey released on Thursday. But nearly two-thirds of Michigan voters (including 40 percent of Republicans) now support the intervention, according to a recent NBC News/Marist poll.
Debbie Dingell, a longtime Michigan Democratic activist and wife of Democratic Rep. John Dingell, said that represents a significant shift from internal polling in 2010 that showed the intervention failing to attract majority support even among local Democrats. “It’s gotten there,” she said. “When we were doing our polling last year, it wasn’t there. But the fact that it’s worked and gotten so much discussion has increased the numbers.”
And that, in turn, has increased the optimism among local Democrats that Obama, who held an 18 percentage-point lead in Michigan over Romney in that NBC News/Marist poll, can recapture a state that swung sharply toward the Republicans in their 2010 midterm landslide.