President Obama on Monday waded into the escalating standoff between union organizers and Republicans in Michigan, ripping the state's right-to-work push and reassuring Big Labor backers who contributed heavily to his campaign and expect a more union-friendly agenda in his second term.
"These so-called right-to-work laws don't have to do with economics; they have everything to do with politics," the president said to supporters just outside Detroit. "What they're really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money."
Michigan is expected to become the nation's 24th right-to-work state this week, a move that would keep workers from being forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder backed the measure because he said it would bring the state a much-needed economic boost. In recent days, right-to-work bills were pushed through the Republican-dominated Michigan legislature, enraging Democrats in a state with strong historical ties to organized labor.
That Obama chose to highlight the controversial law amid his broader "fiscal cliff" focus shows the degree to which the president is indebted to a group that contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to his presidential bids and thousands of hours to mobilizing his base, analysts said.
"Everyone expects the president to do more for unions in his second term," said James Sherk, the Heritage Foundation's senior policy analyst in labor economics. "You saw union leaders were very explicit that they wanted payback in 2008. They haven't been as vocal yet, but union movements have a financial stake in a bigger government."
A top United Auto Workers leader in Ohio put it more bluntly: "Now is the time to cash our check. The president owes us. It's payday. He said he would walk that picket line. We need more than just empty promises."
The union official was alluding to a speech in 2008, when then-Sen. Obama said, "If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I'm in the White House, I'll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I'll walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States."
Since then, however, Obama has experienced a somewhat rocky relationship with labor. Union officials expected Obama in his first term to press for "card check," which would ease unions' effort to organize by abolishing secret-ballot workplace elections, but that push fizzled. Obama also chose not to visit Wisconsin ahead of the contentious recall election there in which Republican Gov. Scott Walker prevailed despite organized labor pumping millions of dollars into outreach.
Obama's remarks on Monday were part of a new effort to appease organized labor in a state where nearly one in five workers are in a union. With his last election behind him, Obama has adopted the no-compromise mantra that union leaders demanded of him in negotiations with Republicans over taxes and spending cuts.
And the president didn't wait long to weigh in on the Michigan law, which union leaders nationwide fear could embolden other states to follow the same course.
"We should do everything we can to keep creating good middle-class jobs that help folks rebuild security for their families," Obama said at Daimler's Detroit Diesel facility. "What we shouldn't be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions."