Around 250 auto workers and supporters marched in Detroit Friday to send a message to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney: "Don't bet against the American Worker."
Romney is set to speak on tax policy at Ford Field as part of an event hosted by the Detroit Economic Club. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, Romney's chief rival for the Republican nomination, spoke to the group about economic policy last Thursday. Both candidates are vying for Michigan, and remain close in the polls ahead of the upcoming Tuesday primary here.
Though Romney has campaigned hard here in recent weeks, attempting to play up his hometown pride and even calling himself a "son of Detroit," auto workers at the rally Friday were none too pleased with the former Massachusetts governor's attempt to rebrand himself as a Michigander.
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GM worker Ken Figley said he'd like to tell Romney to "Go back to Massachusetts. Why didn't he run for reelection there?" Figley said he thought Romney had a 50/50 chance of winning the GOP primary here, but he no longer considers Michigan a swing state. "It's definitely a Democratic state now, because of the auto policy."
"He wasn't there when we needed him," said a United Auto Workers member named Bob, who did not want his last name published because he was skipping work to attend the rally.
Sharon Scott, an autoworker from downriver, wore a UAW jacket and carried a hot pink Planned Parenthood sign. She said she had come out to protest Romney's economic policies, as well as his positions on women's health and reproductive rights.
"He wanted to give up on all of us here," she said. "He's against me and my family."
And for Scott, part of the idea of family is the right to family planning.
"The problem I have is with guys trying to decide what happens with birth control when they have no problem supporting erectile dysfunction medication," she said. "We deserve the right to choose."
The UAW organized the event in conjunction with Progress Michigan, whose executive director, Dave Holtz, said his organization wants to both push hard against Romney and promote a conversation among Michiganders about the consequences of the auto bailout.
"We want to have that debate," he said, "between the folks who are Republicans, and are in the auto industry, who have said the auto rescue worked."
"On the other side, we have the Tea Party standing on ideology rather than being pragmatic and acknowledge that it worked," he added. "For Romney and the Republican candidates, it's time to admit it -- it worked."
The UAW rally seemed designed as much to advocate for Democrats as it was to criticize Romney. While a truck-mounted billboard proclaiming "Let Romney Go Bankrupt" cruised around Ford Field, rally organizers chose a more upbeat message.
UAW President Bob King used call and response to get the crowd cheering, "Thank you President Obama!"
"When all the polls said, 'Do not help the auto industry,' who stood with us," King asked. "Who was there for auto workers, for steel workers, for glass workers and working people in America?"
King applauded the auto industry's turnaround, and said "every single one" of the Republican candidates "has gone against this great American success story."
"We were especially angry with what Mr. Romney said, that we were given something," he said. "Our members gave up from $7,000 to $30,000 a year to keep jobs in America and revitalize and save the companies that we work for. Our members made the sacrifices."
Auto workers, of course, gave up pay and benefit increases during contract negotiations following the bailout and automaker restructuring. When asked how they might reconcile those significant givebacks with a pro-industry spirit, King said he believed the industry had turned around sufficiently to offer workers ample job security.
"There's no need for concessions," he told The Huffington Post. "We're moving toward a successful industry. Ford, GM and Chrysler are profitable."
King would not speculate, however, on whether the record profits for some automakers would result in pay or benefit increases for UAW members.
The UAW is now focused on supporting Obama, and tapping into the 99 percent rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Several members in the crowd carried signs that read "99%" and the UAW is rumored to announced a spring campaign with a similar theme.
King told HuffPost he sees the campaign as tapping into a desire for "all things fair" in society. "It's a broad social and economic justice movement," he said.
He would not comment on his feelings about local politicians, like Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who endorsed Romney while remaining supportive of the auto bailout, but he said he thought "the general population will support Obama" in November.
The UAW protesters marched on the sidewalk outside Ford Field, but on the opposite side of the stadium from the entrance for the Romney event. The closest they came to encountering a Romney supporter was when they loudly booed a passing truck decked out in Romney signs and a billboard.
Jim Wilson, a Virginia resident, drove the white GMC 1500 plastered with Romney campaign signs. He said he drives the truck to campaign events in states across the Midwest.
"I just love a good party," he said.
See more photos from the UAW protest below:
Photos by Kate Abbey-Lambertz