Obama’s UAW Speech Highlights Union Talk in Both Political Parties

This week President Obama gave a fiery speech to United Auto Workers about protecting unionism. In what appeared to be a campaign-style speech, Obama spoke in partisan terms, saying, quite passionately, that “I’ll promise you this: as long as you’ve got an ounce of fight left in you, I’ll have a ton of fight left in me.”

The White House denied that this was a campaign speech, even though it was the day before the Michigan Republican primary. The White House also claimed it was a coincidence the UAW held its national conference on the same day as the Michigan primary.  Regardless of the timing, Obama didn’t squander the opportunity, as he repeatedly made pointed references, without using his name, to Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney, who criticized the auto industry bailout in an op-ed bluntly titled,  “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

With hot rhetoric, Obama said that Republican charges that the auto bailout only hurt bondholders and not the UAW were “a load of you know what.”  Obama pointed out that many workers saw hours reduced or wages cut as retirees made sacrifices on health care benefits. The rhetoric around the 2012 presidential campaign seems to prove this. Republican candidates criticize the Democratic party for not restricting unions more, while the Democrats proudly proclaim that Republicans are the ones actually harming unions and the economy.

It seems the auto bailout is one victory that Obama can parade for union supporters, as the car industry seems to be back on its feet and creating new jobs. Yet, in a more general sense, the economy is bad, unemployment is high, and unions are under assault by both Republican and Democratic governors. The Republicans get a bad rap for attempting to limit collective bargaining rights, whereas the Democrats brag about respecting the collective bargaining process, and then use that process to cut state budgets on the backs of public sector employees. For one example of many, see this NPR article about Connecticut’s governor.

Business groups and Republicans are still engaged in a fight about Obama’s recess appointments to the NLRB, without which the Board might have ceased to function.  It seems that labor, at least in the world of election politics, has a choice between a quick death or a slow tedious one. That will not change the fact that Obama needs labor’s support, and labor is likely to give it. UAW, for its part, plans to be very active this election season with registering voters, and contributing to super-PACs  to run attack ads against potential Republican presidential nominees.

The belief that Democrats are good for union members goes back to the days of FDR and the New Deal, even if that perception might sometimes be at odds with reality. However, labor opponents view Republicans as worse than most Democrats. Barring something drastic, it seems likely that most unions will probably support Obama in the general election. For his part, the president will give at least a few more fiery speeches to the union faithful, promising that down the line his party will kill unions at least a little slower than Republicans.

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