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Romney takes anti-union tack

His approach contrasts sharply with conciliatory statements he has made in past.

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. • As Mitt Romney seeks victory in his native state's primary, he has made organized labor enemy No. 1. He has railed against union 'stooges" and "bosses," arguing that their demands nearly killed the auto industry and have gravely wounded America's competitiveness.

Romney's message and his tone are popular with Republican voters in most of the country, but they contrast sharply with the conciliatory statements he has made about labor in the past, particularly during his 2008 presidential campaign. His comments could haunt efforts by Romney and other Republicans to attract blue-collar workers and economically stressed voters in Michigan and nearby states.

"You get the sense Mitt Romney is only concerned about winning the primary and is not so concerned with winning Michigan in November," said Ed Sarpolus, a nonpartisan pollster who has worked in Michigan for four decades. He said the message is squarely aimed at Tea Party voters, many of whom are skeptical of Romney.

It's a circumstance born of necessity — Romney, despite being a native son and the son of a popular three-term Michigan governor, is locked in a tight battle with rival Rick Santorum and needs every vote he can get. But in a state where 18.3 percent of the employed were members of a union in 2011, more than in all but four other states, a starkly anti-labor message carries risk.

That is confirmed by the approach of Michigan's GOP politicians. Gov. Rick Snyder has endorsed Romney, but his labor positions are dramatically different. Snyder has repeatedly said he has no interest in tackling a "right-to-work" law, which would forbid requiring union membership as a condition of employment. Romney has called for a federal right-to-work law.

In addition, Romney has called for the repeal of a federal law requiring the prevailing local wage to be paid on public works projects. He has pledged that on the first day of his presidency, he would forbid any union preference in federal contracting and said he would fight rules allowing union dues to be taken out of paychecks to fund political activities.

"I've taken on union bosses before," the former Massachusetts governor said in Grand Rapids on Wednesday. "I'm happy to take them on again."

He has squarely blamed unions for the nation's economic troubles.

"Labor has asked for too much and business people have exceeded their demands only to see the business ultimately fail," he told the Iowa Ames Tribune's economic board in December. "That's what happened to GM and Chrysler. The demands of labor unions over time killed those businesses and made America become less competitive."

Yet four years ago, he repeatedly blamed the auto industry's woes on the federal government and called for a summit with industry, union and political leaders to restore the auto industry.

During a 2007 presidential primary debate, Romney said that he would have "a listening ear" directed to labor and management. "The door's always open," he said.

Romney has tried to delineate between union rank-and-file members and their leaders, repeatedly lauding workers as playing an "important role" in the economy. But his tonal shift clearly reflects the nation's more negative views toward unions. It's a harder sell in Michigan, even among GOP voters; some of them are union members.

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