Stumping for higher taxes on top earners, President Obama Monday also inserted himself squarely into Michigan’s boiling debate over a new right-to-work labor law, telling a crowd of Detroit-area auto workers that Republicans pushing for the law are creating political distractions and risking harm to the economy.
“What we shouldn’t be doing is trying to take away your rights to bargain for better wages and working conditions,” the president said at the Daimler Detroit Diesel plant in Redford, Mich. “We don’t want a race to the bottom, we want a race to the top.”
He urged the state’s GOP-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to abandon their efforts to pass the law, which would forbid unions from charging its members dues automatically. Michigan would be the 24th state to adopt the right-to-work law, following Indiana’s passage of a similar law in February.
Labor groups and their Democratic allies plan more protests as the bills to implement right-to-work are voted on this week, calling the issue a divisive one in a state long seen as a bastion of the union movement.
“Folks from our state’s capital all the way to the nation’s capital should be focused on the same thing,” Mr. Obama said. “They should be working to make sure companies like this manufacturer is able to make more great products. America’s not going to compete based on low-skill, low-wage, no workers’ rights — that’s not our competitive advantage.”
He said higher union wages enable workers to buy American products, “because they’ve got enough money in their pockets.”
But supporters of the right-to-work law, which would undercut a key source of union funding, say Mr. Obama’s opposition represents a political payback.
Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Committee, said it was “no surprise” that Mr. Obama would oppose individual choice for workers.
“After Big Labor bosses spent nearly a billion dollars in 2008, and a billion more in 2012, to elect President Obama and other forced unionism partisans to office, it is expected that President Obama would want to prop up a system of political paybacks that compels workers to pay for union boss politics that benefit Obama and other Big Labor politicians as a condition of employment,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Mix said private-sector employment has increased 12.5 percent in right-to-work states over the past decade, far better than in states where there is no right-to-work laws.
Fresh from a face-to-face meeting with Speaker John A. Boehner to avert the “fiscal cliff,” Mr. Obama visited the auto plant to press his case for higher taxes on wealthier families.
The president said he’s “willing to compromise a little bit” in the negotiations to reach a deficit-reduction deal, but said he won’t compromise on his proposal to hike tax rates on families earning more than $250,000 per year, while preserving tax cuts for the middle class.
His visit to the Detroit area also represented something of a victory lap for Mr. Obama, who campaigned heavily for reelection on his support for the auto bailout and accused Republican opponent Mitt Romney of abandoning the industry. Mr. Obama carried the state Nov. 6, despite the fact that his GOP rival was born there.
The president praised the German-based Daimler for announcing Monday that it will invest $125 million in an expansion of its U.S. operations, creating 115 new jobs.
“For a long time, companies … weren’t always making those kinds of investments here in the United States,” Mr. Obama told the autoworkers. “All of you, the men and women who built these companies with your own hands, would have been hung out to dry. I wasn’t about to let that happen. I placed my bet on American workers. Three-and-a-half years later, that bet is paying off.”
Mr. Obama’s trip is the latest in a series of campaign-style events staged by the White House to generate public support for the tax increase. It comes after his Sunday meeting with Mr. Boehner, Ohio Republican, to negotiate a long-term budget deal to avoid automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in January.
The administration and Mr. Boehner’s office declined to provide details of the session at the White House, although they said they were keeping the lines of communication open. It was their first meeting since Nov. 16, although the two men have spoken by phone in the interim.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters traveling with the president aboard Air Force One Monday that keeping the details of their conversation secret could help move along the negotiations.
“We believe that it’s in the best interest of the prospects of getting an agreement,” Mr. Carney said.
He also said Republicans have yet to make a specific proposal on how they will raise revenues. The president is seeking about $1.6 trillion in new revenue over 10 years, while Mr. Boehner offered in a letter to the president on Dec. 3 to raise about $800 billion by closing tax loopholes and limiting deductions.
“The president is the only party that has put forward a plan that has specificity on both the spending and revenue side,” Mr. Carney said. “We have not seen in any detail from the Republicans, including from the offer that was put forward by the speaker in his letter, the kind of detail that would allow us to assess the proposal.”
He said the GOP offer of $800 billion is “far, far short of the necessary revenue for a deal that achieves $4 trillion in deficit reduction.”
Legislative fast track
Supporters say the labor law change, which would exempt police officers and firefighters, would improve the climate for businesses looking to invest in Michigan, whose economy was badly hurt by the long-term decline of the American auto industry and by the recent deep recession. Unemployment, at 9.1 percent in October, ranks 45th among the states, although it has come down from above 11 percent in recent years.
Mr. Obama said right-to-work laws “don’t have to do with economics.”
“They have everything to do with politics,” he said. “What they’re really talking about is giving you the right to work for less money. You only have to look to Michigan, where workers were instrumental in reviving the auto industry, to see how unions have helped build, not just a stronger middle class, but a stronger America.”
Before Mr. Obama arrived, Mr. Snyder met privately with some Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation in Detroit, including Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow and Reps. Hansen Clarke, John Dingell, Gary Peters, David Curson and Rep.-elect Dan Kildee. Mrs. Stabenow participated in the meeting by conference call.
Mr. Levin told reporters after the meeting that the Democratic lawmakers sought a veto or a delay in votes on the measure from the governor. The lawmakers also asked Mr. Snyder to urge Republicans in the state legislature to seek revision in the bills that would allow Michigan voters the right to take up right-to-work laws via a ballot referendum. Currently, the one House bill and two Senate bills incorporating the right-to-work measure include appropriations of $1 million, making them immune from future ballot referendum appeals under state law.
In Washington, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid issuing an angry statement in support of union interests, decrying partisanship.
“This is a blatant attempt by Michigan Republicans to assault the collective bargaining process and undermine the standard of living it has helped foster,” Mr. Reid said. “This effort continues a dangerous trend set by Republican-led state legislatures across the nation, and it is another instance of the tea party needlessly sowing division and setting Republicans’ economic agenda.
“Elected officials, labor leaders and business leaders can and should work towards the common goals of job-creation, improving our economy and strengthening middle-class families,” said Mr. Reid. “But this partisan power grab is a setback to prospects for compromise.”
• Andrea Billups contributed to this report from Detroit.