In the run-up to the Michigan primary, Mitt Romney has been on an anti-union tear. Partly this has consisted of broad (and curiously anachronistic) castigations of “stooges” and “bosses.” But Romney has also trained his anti-labor ire on Rick Santorum, the current frontrunner in the state primary. On Wednesday, his campaign released a fact-sheet titled “Big Labor’s Favorite Senator” seeking to blunt Santorum’s self-proclaimed appeal to working class voters.
But if Santorum is Big Labor’s favorite anything, Big Labor has a strange way of showing it. When I reached out to a number of prominent union leaders from Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania, they didn’t have many warm recollections about him to share. Aside from a few token votes, they maintained, Santorum was as right-wing as the next Republican.
ROMNEY’S CURRENT LINE of criticism against Santorum, as detailed in the press release, focuses on four pro-labor stances Santorum took in the 1990s, including his “no” vote on a national Right-to-Work law, and his refusal to support repeal of the Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates paying workers prevailing union wages on public works projects. Among other liberal heresies, Santorum also voted against NAFTA in 1993 and backed steel tariffs on foreign imports. Such betrayals have rankled more than a few prominent conservatives: A day before Romney’s mailer, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin practically exhorted him to attack Santorum’s “very pro-labor” record.
But Pennsylvania labor unions hold Santorum in no better esteem than do hard-line libertarians. Jack Shea, the head of the Allegheny County Labor Council, said, “I can’t remember him being an ally to labor ever,” adding, “Just by voting against the minimum wage twelve times—it was seared in our minds.” The minimum wage issue is emblematic of Santorum’s relationship with labor. In 2005, he co-sponsored a piece of doomed legislation to raise the minimum wage on the same day he voted against a different, more realistic bill that would have done the same thing. In other words, a few token votes, set to the backdrop of a hostile agenda, did nothing to appease the unions.
Put another way: Santorum’s occasional pro-labor stances were the products of political expediency. Rick Bloomingdale, the president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, told me Santorum “will go whatever way the wind blows.” Bill Ehman, a local steelworkers union chief agreed: “I’ll be honest with you. He was pretty much like he is now. A political whore.” The Latrobe-based Ehman, whose chapter is near Santorum’s old congressional district, added that when Santorum did vote with unions’ interests, as with the 1996 right-to-work bill, it was because he knew it wouldn’t make a difference. (The bill failed 68-31.)
Perhaps the most damning indictment of Santorum’s popularity in Pennsylvania is his AFL-CIO scorecard. Though he voted with the union around 50 percent of the time in his first few years in Congress, by the end of his career he had accumulated a 13 percent lifetime rating. Longtime moderate Republican (later Democratic) Senator Arlen Specter, by contrast, scored at 62 percent. No union, national, statewide, or local, appears to have ever supported his candidacies, and in 2006, the AFL-CIO’s vociferous support for his opponent Bob Casey factored prominently in Santorum’s 18-point defeat.
What, then, explains Santorum’s ability to win repeated office in the heart of Southwest Pennsylvania steel country? For one, says Penn State political scientist Michael Berkman, Santorum’s steadfast opposition to abortion and gay marriage, along with strong support for gun rights, plays to the region’s “Reagan Democrat” character. Bill Ehman, for example, recalls a good 30 to 40 percent of his union’s members sporting Santorum bumper stickers, purely based on social issues. More important, however, may be the union bump Santorum received simply for being a proponent of the steel industry.
As Santorum prepared to run for his second senate term in the late ‘90s, the U.S. steel industry suffered a serious downturn, mostly because of increasingly cheap foreign imports.* From 1997 until 2001, more than 30 steel companies filed for bankruptcy, many of them near Santorum’s old district in suburban Pittsburgh.
Santorum’s anti-NAFTA vote, his co-sponsorship of a 1999 bill to tax imported steel, and his seat on the Congressional Steel Caucus were credentials enough to ensure a steady stream of support from the industry. In the 1997-1998 cycle, he was the top congressional recipient of donations from steel manufacturers. From 1995-2000, U.S. Steel—based in Pittsburgh—was the sixth largest donor to his campaign committee. Santorum’s protectionist policies—while they may have occasionally benefited labor unions—were not necessarily designed to do so. As Jack Shea put it, “The only time he gave the working man a vote is when he did it by accident.”
In early March 1999, as he was pushing Bill Clinton to adopt tariffs and quotas on foreign steel imports, Santorum penned an op-ed for publication in local newspapers. “If action is not taken to protect the steel industry,” Santorum wrote, it “could lose as many as 10,000 jobs.” But again, that sort of support by no means made him a friend of organized labor, which thought he felt more personal fealty to the concerns of management than to the interests of unions. Just two months before the op-ed appeared, Santorum was assailed at a union rally for trying to curry favor with workers. “Shame on you for taking advantage of people’s misery,” yelled a United Steelworkers of America representative. Unions, it appears, were not nearly as enthralled with Santorum as Romney wishes they had been.
Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.
*UPDATE: This article originally stated that the steel industry collapsed in the late 1990s. It actually suffered its first major collapse in the mid-1980s.