Mitt Romney bashed Rick Santorum in Wisconsin earlier this month for being too soft on labor unions, and succeeded in knocking his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination out of the primary and then out of the race.
As he now turns his full attention to President Obama and the general election campaign, the former Massachusetts governor and business man will likely turn up the volume of his anti-union rhetoric as he critiques what he claims are the failures of the administration’s economic and jobs policies.
Whether it’s berating the president as a “crony capitalist” for bailing out the U.S. auto industry at the behest of auto workers, speaking out in favor of “right to work” laws or claiming the president stacked the National Labor Relations Board with labor “stooges,” Romney appears determined to burnish his conservative and pro-business bonafides by challenging organized labor. "I've taken on union bosses before," Romney told Midwestern audiences. "I'm happy to take them on again."
Romney, a native of Michigan and the son of the late governor and auto executive George Romney, says that while unions made important contributions in obtaining protection and benefits for workers, today they too often “drive up costs and introduce rigidities that harm competitiveness and frustrate innovation”
The “card check” bill, if passed, would have stripped workers of the right to a secret ballot on whether to unionize their work place.
Throughout the primary season, Romney cast himself as the chief nemesis of organized labor, as he attempted to broaden his appeal to anti-union conservatives. He denounced Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, as “Big Labor’s favorite senator” for voting against a right to work proposal that would have stopped the mandatory deduction of union dues, while supporting preservation of the Davis Bacon Act requiring the federal government to pay contractors higher “prevailing wages.”
Romney launched similar salvos against the president, particularly over Obama’s co-sponsorship in the Senate of a 2007 “card check” bill that, if passed, would have stripped workers of the right to a secret ballot on whether to unionize their work place. He also contended that Obama appointed “Big Labor cronies” to the NLRB where they have “wreaked havoc on the law and hurt the employment climate.
A major case in point: An effort by the NLRB’s top lawyer to retaliate against the Boeing Company for alleged union busting tactics by blocking the company’s plans to move production of its new Dreamliner planes from Everett, Wash., to a new plant in Charleston, South Carolina. Boeing Executive Vice President Michael Luttig blasted the ruling as "frivolous" and vowed to fight it in court.
So far, the aggressive assault on organized labor has worked well for Romney, as he dispatched Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the major industrial states of Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin, where organized labor enjoys little support among the Republican Party’s conservative base.
But it’s far from clear how Romney’s stands will play among blue collar workers and Reagan Democrats in key Rust Belt battleground states in the general election campaign. Obama is certain to go after the multi-millionaire Romney for favoring tax cuts for the rich and major oil companies, and for opposing the government bailout of General Motors and Chrysler that put those two auto giants back on the path to profitability.
If he slams unions, I think in his case it’s a bit dangerous, because he already has the image of being one of the wealthiest ‘one percent’...
“If he mutes the anti-union stuff and focuses on economic development, I don’t think the anti-union label will be that big a deal,” said Philip Dine, an expert on the labor movement and author of “State of the Unions,” a book that examines ways labor can regain political influence. “But if he slams unions, I think in his case it’s a bit dangerous, because he already has the image of being one of the wealthiest ‘one percent’ . . . and he’s missing an opportunity to make some inroads among Reagan Dems, NASCAR dads, and blue-collar conservatives in states he needs to win, like Ohio.”
Indeed, labor organizers say they are savoring the opportunity to contrast Romney’s calls for tax cuts for the wealthy and spending cuts for the poor and middle class with Obama’s themes of tax “fairness.” Obama wants to enact the “Buffett Rule” to ensure that the wealthiest Americans who pay a relatively low tax rate on their investment income, are forced to pay the higher 30-percent tax rate that many upper middle-income people must pay.
“The most important thing about governor Romney is that if you look at his tax returns – especially the ones that he hasn’t released – what you see almost line by line is wealth created by the provisions that have been enacted over the past 30 years that have hollowed out the middle class, that have sent jobs overseas, that have laid people off,” Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO political director, told The Fiscal Times Thursday. “ He is a walking embodiment of policies that crashed the economy.”
However, Whit Ayres, a prominent Republican political strategist and pollster, argues that Romney’s tough anti-union positions will play well in the general election. “Basically what he has had to say is that the federal government and the NLRB should not be in the position of trying to keep an already built plant from opening in America and creating thousands of jobs,” Ayres said.
“It was absolute madness what the NLRB was doing under the Obama administration. . . .And I’ll be happy to fight out the election with the Republicans arguing that union elections should be held by secret ballots and [not] in an open forum where people can be intimidated.”
Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which stating that an equal-pay lawsuit resets with each new discriminatory paycheck.
Labor leaders have praised Obama for taking America from the brink of a second Great Depression by pressing Congress to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which saved or created 3.6 million jobs. They also credit him for championing comprehensive health insurance reform and for pushing through major Wall Street financial reforms to guard against another meltdown and to protect consumers.
They also note that Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stating that the 180-day statute of limitation for filing an equal-pay lawsuit regarding pay discrimination resets with each new discriminatory paycheck.
“Although the labor movement has sometimes differed with the president and often pushed his administration to do more and do it faster, we have never doubted his commitment to working families,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said last month in endorsing the president for reelection.
While the labor movement has enjoyed substantial growth in the public sector, it has seen its membership in the private sector shrink dramatically over the past decade to a mere 6.9 percent. With American multinational corporations now locating much of their production abroad and fewer and fewer workers holding union cards, workers have little power to bargain for higher wages or better benefits. According to last Friday’s Bloomberg Briefing, “the pace of income gains is well below that of the past two jobless recoveries and real average hourly earnings continue to decline."
That’s why Romney’s calls for weakening labor laws and policies are viewed with such alarm by labor leaders. In the run-up to the April 3 GOP presidential primary in Wisconsin, Romney and his troops sought to ally themselves with embattled Republican Gov. Scott Walker and to tap into Republican anger toward unions there. Walker is facing a recall election after pushing through legislation that stripped state public employees of many of their collective bargaining rights.
But in using the “right to work” issue against Santorum in the primary, Romney went well beyond what Walker and state Republican lawmakers have pushed for. As Craig Gilbert of the Journal Sentinel noted in an analysis just before the primary, “Walker’s most controversial measures have been aimed at public-sector unions. Right-to-work laws encompass private-sector unions, prohibiting mandatory union dues for workers covered by collective bargaining. That has been a bridge too far for Wisconsin Republicans, as it has for Republicans in most “blue” and “purple” states across the country.”
But for now, at least that apparently is not a bridge too far for Romney.