Obama jumps headfirst into fight over Michigan 'right-to-work' law

President Obama on Monday injected himself into an escalating fight over changing Michigan into a right-to-work state, saying the state Legislature’s move to ban the required paying of union dues was all about politics. 

The quick entry into the fight by Obama suggests the White House could be more aggressively involved in the Michigan fight than in a similar battle in Wisconsin in 2011. 

It also signaled an alliance between Obama and labor amid fiscal talks in which Obama will be under pressure to offer Republicans entitlement reforms opposed by unions. 

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“I’ve just got to say this,” Obama said at the Daimler Detroit Diesel plant in Michigan before a small crowd of workers. “What we shouldn’t be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions. We shouldn’t be doing that.

“You know, these so-called right-to-work laws, they don’t have to do with economics, they have everything to do with politics,” Obama added to applause and cheers from the crowd. “What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money.”

Obama’s comments came a day before Michigan’s Legislature is expected to take final action on the measure — which would make the stronghold of organized labor the 24th state in the country to have a right-to-work law. 



The Legislature only took up the issue late last week, after GOP Gov. Rick Snyder shifted his position and said he would be willing to sign it. Snyder, who greeted Obama at the airport in Detroit on Monday, is expected to sign the right-to-work bill on Tuesday. 


Labor officials hailed Obama for entering the debate. 

“Him coming out against the bill, to stand up and use his bully pulpit, is absolutely going to help the cause,” said one union official. “Having someone who can inspire like Obama does can only help the cause.”

Obama’s relationship with labor in his first term was often tense. His administration didn’t push “card-check” — legislation that would have made union organizing easier — and moved forward on a number of trade deals, which angered labor leaders.

Further, Obama kept his distance from the battle between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and unions over prohibiting collective bargaining rights for some public workers. 

“They were very careful when it came to Wisconsin,” said Jamie Horwitz, a consultant to several unions. Walker would survive a recall election last year and become a conservative hero.

Election-year politics moved labor and Obama closer together. Unions worked their ground game to help win a number of key battleground states for the president, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio.

Horwitz said he believed the White House would be more aggressive on the labor battle in Michigan than it had been in Wisconsin.

“There’s nothing but upside for him on this one. The landscape has changed,” Horwitz said. “In the terms of the way the fiscal cliff is being pursued, the president is fighting for the middle class and saying, ‘let’s tax the elites.’ … In the middle of that, the Republicans are saying let’s curb union rights.”

In his speech on Monday, Obama described the proposed changes in Michigan as being part of a “race to the bottom” that won’t help the economy.

“What we shouldn’t be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages,” Obama told a small crowd at the plant. “We don’t want a race to the bottom. We want a race to the top.”

Obama’s reelection likely affords him the ability to work harder for labor on some issues. 

At the same time, the upheaval in Michigan allows Obama to earn good will with labor, which might help if unions feel aggrieved by a future compromise deal to resolve the fiscal cliff.

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Obama is demanding that Republicans agree to tax-rate hikes on wealthier households as part of the talks, something unions strongly support. It would be a huge victory for the White House and Democrats, because it would break the GOP’s insistence that no tax rates be allowed to rise. 

To get the deal and a hike in the debt ceiling Obama demands, however, he will likely need to offer concessions on spending and entitlements that would be opposed by unions. 

While the president can’t expect labor to support those cuts, he needs their opposition to at least be tempered to win votes in the Senate and House for a deal with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

During his brief speech on Monday, Obama didn’t mention his Sunday meeting with Boehner. But he used the opportunity to remind the crowd that they would pay an additional average of $2,200 in taxes if lawmakers fail to reach an agreement that prevents current middle-class rates from expiring.

“If Congress doesn’t act soon, meaning in the next few weeks, starting on Jan. 1, everybody’s going to see their income taxes go up. It’s true. Y’all don’t like that,” the president told the crowd.

But Obama also added that the country needed to “get past this situation where we manufacture crises.”

The visit to the Daimler plant just outside Detroit came on the same day the company announced a new $100 million investment to produce engines for heavy-duty trucks.

The move is expected to continue to add jobs in a state that benefited from Obama’s auto bailout earlier in the administration.

— Updated at 8:31 p.m.


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