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Mitt Romney gets a not-so-warm welcome at the Daytona 500

It’s a sure sign of spring: the Sprint Cup NASCAR season starts today with the Daytona 500 (provided it stops raining…). And the two top contenders for the GOP Presidential nomination are there – Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are pressing the flesh at the track. At first glance it would seem like a pretty odd place for two Northeastern big government conservatives to hang out. Daytona is the Super Bowl for good ol’ boys (although with a pre-race show from Lenny Kravitz, the “good ol’ boy” label is a bit less appropriate) Romney and Santorum hardly fit into that category. With a crowd of 100K+ at the track and a huge television audience, it’s a pretty good place for a politician to hang out.

With the Michigan primary coming up next week, an event that highlights high-performance American cars seems like a natural for these guys. Until recently, NASCAR has been all-American, but in recent years, Toyota has made a good showing – at least seven of the qualifying drivers will be in Toyota Camrys (or at least they have a vague resemblance to a Camry). But despite the fact that Romney’s home state is Michigan, he’s not a real popular guy with the folks up there, and especially not with the UAW.

Today at Daytona the UAW plans to protest against Mitt with a plane-towed banner that reads “”Mitt Romney: Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”” This stems from Romney’s 2008 NYT op-ed that was titled, not coincidentally, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt“. That piece wasn’t particularly anti-UAW, but it did zero in rather pointedly on some union sacred cows:

First, their huge disadvantage in costs relative to foreign brands must be eliminated. That means new labor agreements to align pay and benefits to match those of workers at competitors like BMW, Honda, Nissan and Toyota. Furthermore, retiree benefits must be reduced so that the total burden per auto for domestic makers is not higher than that of foreign producers.

That extra burden is estimated to be more than $2,000 per car. Think what that means: Ford, for example, needs to cut $2,000 worth of features and quality out of its Taurus to compete with Toyota’s Avalon. Of course the Avalon feels like a better product — it has $2,000 more put into it. Considering this disadvantage, Detroit has done a remarkable job of designing and engineering its cars. But if this cost penalty persists, any bailout will only delay the inevitable.

Second, management as is must go. New faces should be recruited from unrelated industries — from companies widely respected for excellence in marketing, innovation, creativity and labor relations.

The new management must work with labor leaders to see that the enmity between labor and management comes to an end. This division is a holdover from the early years of the last century, when unions brought workers job security and better wages and benefits. But as Walter Reuther, the former head of the United Automobile Workers, said to my father, “Getting more and more pay for less and less work is a dead-end street.”

You don’t have to look far for industries with unions that went down that road. Companies in the 21st century cannot perpetuate the destructive labor relations of the 20th. This will mean a new direction for the U.A.W., profit sharing or stock grants to all employees and a change in Big Three management culture.

As of late last week, Rasmussen showed Romney back in the lead in Michigan, following a rather mediocre debate performance by Santorum.  Santorum has been considered to be somewhat friendly to organized labor and has a history of pro-labor votes on items such as minimum wage, salaries, Right to Work, and steel tariffs. So it’s not surprising that the UAW is interested in seeing Rick over Mitt.

The op-ed in question was actually a pretty strong piece by Romney. His position on the auto manufacturing industry was spot on. And you have to like the fact that he really got under the skin of the UAW on this.

Nonetheless, it caught me off guard when I saw/heard that these guys were at the 500 – an event that has been a lot more popular with a pretty different demographic than these two would normally appeal to. But it appears that the appeal of NASCAR has changed – no country music this year.  It’s a younger and less traditional crowd.

Maybe there’s hope for Mitt yet.

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