MILFORD, Mich. – Scrambling to galvanize conservative voters for Michigan’s critical Republican presidential primary, Mitt Romney unleashed a tirade against “labor stooges” here Thursday night and accused union leaders and President Obama of engaging in “crony capitalism.”

The former Massachusetts governor returned to his native Michigan, the historic heart of the nation’s organized labor movement, and assailed the practices of the United Auto Workers and other leading unions. Romney sounded off on card-check legislation that unions have pushed for years, as well as the very way in which labor unions exercise their influence in political campaigns.

“Unions play an important role and I have no problem with union members and feel that they make a real contribution, but let me tell you, the union bosses, that’s a different group,” Romney said at a tea party forum in Milford. “And they gave a lot of money to Barack Obama to get him elected and they’re going to give a lot more to get him reelected.”

Romney labeled this “crony capitalism,” adding: “Here’s another thing that just drives me nuts and that is that that union boss has a right to take money out of a worker’s wages to go into a political action committee that that worker may disagree with and then that union CEO takes that money and gives it to whoever he wants.”

Romney’s sharp rhetoric could cost him dearly here and in other Rust Belt states in a general election against President Obama, but he apparently calculated it was necessary if he were to make it to the fall campaign as the Republican nominee. In his home state of Michigan, where he has long been considered a heavy favorite, Romney is locked in a dead heat with former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and is trying to pick up momentum before next Tuesday’s primary.


As he returned to Michigan following two days of campaigning and debating in Arizona, Romney tried to wrap himself in his father’s legacy. George Romney served three terms as a popular governor, and Mitt Romney opened his speech here telling stories about his parents.

“It’s good to be home, to the place of my birth,” Romney said. He referenced the nation’s automotive history and recalled that Detroit was once “the pride of the nation” before noting, “What an extraordinary city this is, and how sad it is to see Detroit suffering.”

But despite his admiration for the automotive industry and its workers, Romney sharply criticized its unions and organized labor in general. Romney lashed out at Obama for supporting card-check legislation, which labor advocates have said would make it easier for employees to form unions in their workplaces.

“Here’s the president out there speaking about the positive attributes of card check,” Romney said. “I don’t understand how someone who believes in democracy could believe that it makes sense to take away the right of a secret ballot to a worker in this country. I will protect the rights of workers in America.”

Obama has actually come under criticism from some labor unions for not fighting harder for card-check legislation, which has not passed in Congress. Under the card-check process, a company would recognize a union if a majority of employees sign cards in support of it. Critics prefer a system in which employees vote with secret ballots.

Romney’s comments came during a 25-minute stump speech at an evening event sponsored by eight local tea party groups. In a question-and-answer session that followed, Romney was asked again about labor issues, specifically how he could enact right-to-work legislation.

“The big automotive factories that have been announced from overseas, they go to right-to-work states,” Romney said. “People are going to say you know what? If we want jobs, we’ve got to be right-to-work. And individual workers want to have the ability to choose whether they want to join a union or not. It’s extraordinary that we force people to join a union whether we want to or not.”

Romney has accused Obama of exercising “crony capitalism” in the auto industry bailout, but a recent Washington Post Fact Checker column raised questions about that assertion.