Two big unions turn up heat in presidential race

With the presidential campaign in full swing following President Obama's formal re-election announcement, two top unions jumped in hard. The Teamsters endorsed Obama on May 6, and both they and the Steelworkers blasted his GOP foe, Mitt Romney. The USW strongly seconded Obama's reiterated call for Congress to pass his jobs bills.

Their actions foreshadow a fierce fight between the president and Romney for the votes of blue-collar workers, especially men. Obama won a majority of union blue-collar men in 2008, but lost non-union blue-collar men.

Teamsters President James Hoffa, announcing the union board's endorsement at its Unity Conference in Las Vegas on May 7, took the occasion not only to praise the president - who gave delegates a live address by video - but to blast the GOP businessman's latest anti-worker, anti-labor statements.

Romney, a Michigan native and former CEO of Bain Capital, told a crowd at Lansing, Mich., Community College on May 7 that unions are to blame for job losses, decline of U.S. industry and death of U.S. companies. Romney also advocated so-called "right to work" laws. The week before, Obama, adopting labor's description of those right-wing state statutes, called them "right-to-work-for-less laws."

Calling Romney a "vulture capitalist" - a phrase Romney's GOP primary foes coined - fellow Michigan native Hoffa said: "Romney is the last person that should be pointing the finger at anyone for the decline of American businesses and job loss.

"This nonsense is coming from a man who made his millions dismantling companies and putting countless numbers of middle class workers out on the street. He is nothing more than a parrot, repeating whatever talking points are put in front of him each day. This is not a man that should be in the White House as we continue down the path to economic recovery."

And state "right-to-work laws are not right for America's workers," Hoffa said. "In this time of rising health costs and dwindling wages and benefits, the last thing workers need is a president that wants to destroy the strong representation unions provide.

"In Romney's America, workers would not be able to bargain for better wages, stronger work rules, or affordable health care. Is that really what the 99 percent needs right now? I don't think so."

"We have a common vision for where we want to take this country, one where everyone has a fair shot. I could not be prouder for your endorsement," Obama told the Teamsters in the live video speech. "Let's get to work. Let's move this country forward."

Hoffa's speech and his promise that the Teamsters would rally their members to not only vote for Obama but campaign for him is important, as is the Steelworkers' praise of Obama's campaign for more jobs. USW also promised to mobilize for Obama.

Both unions have tens of thousands of blue-collar members, especially white men, who - unless they were unionists - did not produce a majority for Obama in 2008. And blue-collar men were hit hard by the Great Recession, which Obama has spent 3 and a half years trying to dig the nation out of.

And both unions are important factors and mobilizers in the belt of Great Lakes industrial states from Minnesota through New York that Obama needs to win to be re-elected. The states include Hoffa's Michigan and Pennsylvania, headquarters of USW.

USW President Leo Gerard hit many of the same themes in his pointed critique of Romney, whom Gerard called - in one of his milder depictions - "dishonest."

Romney is "the 'Etch-A-Sketch' candidate who can't help himself in trying to pretend the demise of the Oldsmobile was the fault of the current administration and labor unions," Gerard added. Romney's own campaign manager had coined the Etch-A-Sketch description, citing the erasable children's toy to explain how Romney would shift his positions away from Radical Right mantras he chanted during GOP primaries.

"Romney's record as the corporate boss at Bain Capital will show he and Wall Street raiders like him destroyed good family jobs and converted hard-earned pensions and health care benefits into millions for himself and his shareholders, hiding loot in tax-free, offshore secret bank accounts," Gerard continued.

"We as guardians of the middle class will expose Romney's lies and reveal him as a politician who seeks to deny workers' rights in the states, and advocates schemes that exploit workers in low-wage states," the Steelworkers leader promised.

When Obama wasn't speaking to the Teamsters, he was campaigning at Albany [N.Y.] Community College - and demanding the GOP pass jobs bills.

"Manufacturing is the key to rebuilding our economy and creating family-sustaining jobs," Gerard said. "Middle America wants an economy that makes things and works for them, not one based on outsourcing, tax loopholes, and shady financial deals. Rewarding creation and retention of good-paying American jobs and eliminating the tax incentives to ship them overseas should be a top priority of Congress."