Moroun can buy a lot of things, including friends

UAW, Moroun said to be allies in battle to block new U.S.-Canada bridge

By Nathan Bomey and Brent Snavely
Detroit Free Press Business Writers

The UAW and Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun are discussing a deal that calls for the billionaire to pump cash into a labor-sponsored ballot initiative in exchange for the union’s support for a Moroun-backed campaign to block a new international bridge from Detroit to Windsor, according to a senior auto executive and several local political leaders.

News of the secret discussions between the UAW and Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Co. sent business leaders and officials on both sides of the political aisle reeling when it leaked this week, sources told the Free Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Mickey Blashfield, Moroun’s director of government relations, declined to comment Thursday when asked whether there have been discussions with the UAW.

The governor’s communications director, Geralyn Lasher, said such a deal would amount to a UAW “money grab.”

“People are surprised, but I don’t know that we really should be, considering the type of money the Moroun family has put into their win-at-all-costs campaign,” Lasher said. “That’s business as usual for the Morouns.”

Proposal 2, backed by unions, asks Michigan voters on Nov. 6 to enshrine collective-bargaining rights into the state constitution. Proposal 6, backed by Moroun and his family, would require a statewide vote before Michigan could spend money on international bridges and tunnels. It aims to prolong the Moroun family’s monopoly on Detroit River bridge crossings.

The proposed deal, which one person with knowledge of the discussions called “2 for 6,” would heighten tensions between the union and Snyder over recent Republican-backed legislation, such as teacher tenure reform.

The new bridge has drawn support from high-profile local businesses and executives, especially auto companies, two former Democratic Michigan governors, two former Republican governors, many unions that would benefit from construction jobs and many other elected officials.

It’s unclear how much money would go into backing the UAW effort, how it would be spent or how effective UAW higher-ups could be in delivering votes for Moroun’s Proposal 6.

Craig Ruff, a political analyst with Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants, said such a deal, if consummated by the two sides, would be risky for the UAW.

“People who do not respect Moroun are now going to have a much lower image of the UAW if this turns out to be the case,” Ruff said.

UAW spokeswoman Michele Martin said the union and President Bob King have never taken a position on Snyder’s bridge proposal. At an event in July, King said he supported a new bridge, but dodged a question about whether he supported the bridge that Snyder plans to build with Canada, or the bridge that Moroun was planning to build next to the Ambassador.

“We are still studying the issue and when we make a decision, we will make an announcement,” Martin said, declining to comment on any possible deal with Moroun.

With fewer than four weeks until Election Day, the UAW is scrambling to build support for Proposal 2, which has drawn opposition from Snyder, legislative Republicans and various business groups.

If the UAW endorses Proposal 6, it would be viewed by some as a reversal for the labor union.

The governor’s proposed bridge has won the endorsement of other key labor groups, including the Michigan State AFL-CIO and Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters & Millwrights.

A Free Press poll last month found that 49% of voters living in a union household support Proposal 6, while 44% oppose the ballot proposal. That’s within the poll’s margin of error.

King, who was in South Korea earlier this week, is expected back in Michigan today.

State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, said she would be deeply disappointed if the UAW endorsed Proposal 6.

“I believe there has been no concrete agreement that has been made,” she said. “In my opinion … anything dealing with Matty Moroun and his agenda doesn’t end well. … He is not a person who shares the same values as our labor community.”

Tlaib said King has toured neighborhoods in southwest Detroit and has endorsed a community benefits plan. That plan urges the state to protect homes, monitor air quality and give local residents a voice in the development process as a new bridge is constructed.

“We want to create long-term permanent jobs in this community; we want to create new investment in this community and this bridge project is a great opportunity to do it if we do it right,” King said of that plan on July 1, 2011. He was speaking in Delray, an impoverished neighborhood that would be affected by bridge construction.

Also, UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada is co-chair of the Economic Alliance for Michigan, a group of labor and business leaders that work together to improve the state’s business climate. On June 6, 2011, the alliance wrote a letter to state legislators in support of a new bridge.

Ruff, the Lansing-based political analyst, said a political alliance between Moroun and the UAW would be an odd political pairing.

“Moroun has given more money to Republicans than Democrats, so the Democrats are probably scratching their heads saying, ‘What is my UAW doing to me?’ ” Ruff said.

Moroun also has bankrolled Proposal 5, an anti-tax measure that would require a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to pass tax increases and is strongly opposed by public-sector unions. The UAW represents a large number of State of Michigan employees.

Some point out that the UAW could walk a fine line of supporting Snyder’s bridge and also Proposal 6 — which would not necessarily block the bridge but could invite legal challenges.

Supporters of the new bridge also say that Proposal 6 would not affect the governor’s plans to build a new bridge because it already has been approved by Michigan and Canada and won’t use state taxpayer dollars.

Last year, Snyder struck a deal with Canada, which is providing $550 million up-front to fund Michigan’s portion of the crossing. That money will be refunded over time through future bridge tolls, not from Michigan taxpayers.

Legal experts who recently reviewed the bridge deal for the Free Press concluded that the deal would not cost Michigan taxpayers anything.

But Moroun has spent millions on TV commercials claiming that the bridge will cost Michigan taxpayers millions.

“We’ve never seen anything like this, and what’s been reported that he’s spent is I’m sure way under what’s actually been spent,” said John Truscott, a GOP supporter and co-owner of public relations firm Truscott Rossman. “Everybody has panned their commercials as completely inaccurate, but he does it. It’s been very effective. People believe it.”

The bridge has drawn support from high-profile local businesses and executives, two former Democratic Michigan governors, two former Republican governors and many other elected officials.

Business Leaders for Michigan CEO Doug Rothwell, who supports the new bridge and opposes Proposal 2 and Proposal 6, said he is confident voters “will do the right thing” on the bridge proposal if they’re provided accurate information.

“What is surprising about all this is the UAW would enter into an agreement to oppose the bridge, which would create a lot of union jobs,” Rothwell said.