United Auto Workers President Bob King has accused the Mitt Romney campaign of using "dirty tricks" to try and drive a wedge between the union and the White House on the eve of the election.
An Ohio newspaper on Monday published a letter that King sent to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in October expressing concern about White House cuts to the M1 Abrams tank program. King warned the decision "would result in the loss of thousands of good paying manufacturing jobs across the United States" — particularly in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The letter was published in the Lima News, where the main Abrams production plant is located, and echoed many of the arguments that Romney has made about likely job losses in the industrial Midwest if the tank program is curtailed.
The Republican presidential hopeful has hit President Obama particularly hard on the Abrams plan in the Rust Belt battleground states that could decide the election.
King said the publication of the letter hours before the polls open on Tuesday was an example of the "Romney [camp] pulling dirty tricks."
"They can't win [in Ohio] on the up and up," King told The Hill on Monday, hours after the letter went public.
UAW leaders and members in Ohio and across the country remain "1,000 percent supportive of Obama," King said, noting that support has remained steadfast throughout the campaign.
Requests for comment from the Romney campaign were not returned on Monday evening.
Jim Krumel, editor of the Lima News, declined to identify the individual who forwarded King's letter to the paper. But Krumel said the person was very "apolitical" and the leaking of the letter to the paper was not intended to sway Ohio voters to either the Obama or Romney camp. He said the individual was just trying to bring more attention to the difficult fiscal situation facing the Abrams plant.
Senior leaders of UAW's local affiliate in Lima, Ohio, reiterated King's claims about the letter to The Hill and said the Abrams upgrade program is no longer an issue. Craig Kiefer, president of UAW Local 2147, said the union, DOD and congressional lawmakers hammered out a tentative agreement on the Abrams program last month.
That deal, according to Kiefer, still canceled the upgrade program but allowed weapons work to continue at the Lima plant.
King's letter was "taken out of context for purely political purposes" by the Romney campaign, Kiefer said.
Instead of upgrading the Pentagon's fleet of Abrams tanks, union workers will refurbish and upgrade tanks bound for foreign militaries in the Mideast and elsewhere in the world, Kiefer said.
The agreement allows the Ohio plant's 1,000 to 1,100 union members to remain employed while keeping in line with the administration's plans to end the Abrams upgrade work, Kiefer said.
"The fair thing to say ... is the current administration acted to resolve the problem," he said. "This letter was misused ... it was not timely anymore," Kiefer added.
Given the deal reached in October with UAW and DOD, "there is no current reason for anyone ... to go back and start talking about our conversations" over the tank upgrade program, said Carl Schwartz, head of the local union's hourly employees.
The $321 million, congressionally backed Abrams upgrade effort would have been included in the Pentagon's annual defense spending bill for fiscal 2013. Pentagon and White House officials nixed the request in favor of the Army's plan to slim down its arsenal of combat vehicles while the service prepares to shrink its ranks significantly as part of the Pentagon's post-Afghanistan strategy.
The Abrams tank played a central role in the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1993 during Operation Desert Storm and in 2001 during Operation Enduring Freedom.
But aside from a short-lived deployment with Marine Corps units in southern Afghanistan, the vehicle has seen little to no action for almost the entirety of the decade-long war in Afghanistan.