Risking union ire, Romney slams Santorum’s labor votes
Mitt Romney is taking an antiunion stance in Michigan, attacking Rick Santorum for his “unapologetic defense of big labor’’ as part of a new attempt to paint his rival as beholden to a powerful Democratic ally.
Romney is seizing on votes Santorum took in the Senate against national right-to-work legislation and in support of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires government contractors to pay the prevailing wage. Both votes reflected the positions of organized labor.
“I’ve taken on union bosses before, and I’m happy to take them on again because I happen to believe that you can protect the interests of American taxpayers, and you can protect a great industry like automobiles without having to give in to the UAW [United Auto Workers], and I sure won’t,’’ Romney said Wednesday.
Romney’s campaign, meanwhile, blasted out memos declaring, “I won’t give in to the UAW,’’ and calling Santorum “big labor’s favorite senator.’’
Romney’s attacks on labor carry some risk in Michigan, where he is trying to broaden his appeal to blue-collar voters before the state’s Feb. 28 primary. About 17.5 percent of all of Michigan’s workers are union members - the fifth-highest rate of any state, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The state’s primary is also open to independents and Democrats. In the past, some Democratic union members have crossed over to sway the Republican outcome. But union leaders said they have no plans to meddle in the GOP primary and are planning simply to ignore Romney’s rhetoric.
“We don’t want to sabotage their primary,’’ said Albert Garrett, president of the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “We think whoever they select won’t be good for workers in Michigan.’’
In the general election, he said, unions will ramp up and make “very clear how we feel about Mr. 1 Percent, Mitt Romney.’’
Some political allies of labor said Romney’s assault on unions and the United Auto Workers could backfire.
“There are a lot of union members in Michigan who vote Republican,’’ said state Representative Brandon Dillon, a Grand Rapids Democrat and strong labor backer. “He’s totally miscalculating where voters are in the state.’’
Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan, who endorsed Romney yesterday, has pointedly avoided joining fellow Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana who have waged major battles against union protections in their states. Snyder, who is facing reelection in 2014, has said he considers right-to-work legislation, which would bar unions from charging nonmember workers for representation, “very divisive’’ and not “appropriate in Michigan during 2012.’’
Santorum’s own labor credentials are mixed. Although he has sometimes sided with unions, he has more often voted against their wishes. Santorum voted with labor only 13 percent of the time, according to the AFL-CIO.
In attacking unions, Romney is trying to steer his duel with Santorum back toward his strong suit, economic issues, said Craig Ruff, a longtime observer of Michigan politics and a senior fellow at Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing think tank.
“It does focus attention away from social issues and toward economic issues, and maybe that’s what the campaign plan is all about: to have Romney spending more time talking about jobs and unions than abortion and ObamaCare,’’ he said.
The danger is that independents and blue-collar Democrats will punish him for his rhetoric in November. “If Romney were to get the nomination, many of them are Reagan Democrats, they’re going to remember his broadsides, and he’s going to weaken his ability to appeal to that group, which is very significant in number,’’ Ruff said.
Attorney General Bill Schuette, Romney’s campaign chairman in Michigan, said Romney’s pledge to roll back union protections will appeal to voters who blame unions for dragging down the economy.
“It reveals part of the core of Mitt Romney, in terms of his free-enterprise philosophy,’’ he said. “I think that appeals to conservative Republicans, I think that appeals to Tea Party activists.’’
Romney courted union members in his 2002 race for governor of Massachusetts, pledging to push for annual increases in the minimum wage, tied to the cost of inflation. He also sought and received the endorsement of several politically potent police unions.
But in Michigan, he is highlighting the times he battled unions - his efforts, for example, to ban union members from serving as government managers and to exempt small public works projects from the state’s prevailing wage law. As president, he says, he would support federal right-to-work legislation and repeal the Davis-Bacon Act.
Santorum has explained his 1996 vote against right-to-work legislation by arguing that, as a senator from Pennsylvania, he did not want the federal government to trample the state’s laws supporting unions.
“I wasn’t, as United States senator representing the state of Pennsylvania, going to go down and, by federal vote, change the law on the state,’’ he said on “Fox News Sunday.’’ “I believe the state has the right. If they want a union dues requirement, the state should be able to do that.’’
But he said his position has now changed.
“As a president, I [would] have a very different point of view,’’ he said. “I would sign a national right-to-work bill because now, I’m no longer representing that state.
“And by the way, the same thing with respect to Davis-Bacon,’’ Santorum added. “My feeling was, again, representing that state, which has a large segment of contractors that work under those provisions, that I would protect that right.’’
Matt Viser of the Globe staff contributed to this article. Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.