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Why union rank and file resists Bush's overtures

At Fran's Road House, the talk is about jobs, free trade, and coattails.

Mike Caldwell, fresh off an 8-1/2 shift at the DaimlerChrysler stamping plant here, says that evaluating President Bush's first seven months in office is pretty simple.

"His being elected sure hasn't helped the economy at all," says Mr. Caldwell, a 22-year veteran of the plant. "From 1993 to last year, our [annual] profit-sharing checks were somewhere between $4,600 and $10,000. Our check this year was $351 and that was before taxes."

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Of course, Mr. Bush is hardly responsible for Chrysler's profit-sharing checks, and even the downturn in the economy started on Bill Clinton's watch. But Caldwell doesn't see it that way. Neither do many of the thousands of workers who clock in and out at three factories here along America's Auto Belt. Which is not good news for Bush.

Boldly but perhaps a bit quixotically, the president is making a play for more support among the union rank and file, which, in recent years, has been one of the most hostile constituencies to Republicans. This from a president who, in his first months in office, has been labeled as one of the most pro-business chief executives in two decades.

Yet opportunities do exist for the White House. The Teamsters backed the administration on the vote to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, and other union leaders have said they're not going to make decisions based on party, but on the merits of each issue.

As Bush begins reaching out to organized labor, as he did by meeting with steelworkers in Pittsburgh yesterday, a good gauge of his likely reception comes from the diners and Dunkin Donut shops of Macomb County, Mich.

It's here that Ronald Reagan captured the blue-collar Roman Catholic Democrats who became a significant part of his base in the early 1980s. Later, former Republican rebel Pat Buchanan won over many rank and file with his fiery anti-free-trade rhetoric.

Yet for Bush, who lost the popular vote last fall and may need this constituency for his own job security in the future, being accepted in the local union hall will take some work.

Macomb County, which contains Detroit's northeastern bedroom communities, is home to what might be called middle-middle-class workers. Many working the lines here don't have a college education and are more sensitive to the economy's shifts and hiccups - and they vote.

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About 43 percent of the voting households in Macomb are home to at least one union member, compared with 33 percent in the state of Michigan and 15 percent nationally, and Bush is currently not scoring well with them.

Bush's job-approval rating is 48 percent positive and 47 percent negative in Michigan as a whole, but among union households it is 40 percent positive and 60 percent negative, says Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus. "They just don't see him as the compassionate conservative he wants to be," he says. "The next year or so is going to be critical."

Across from the DaimlerChrysler plant, workers congregate at Fran's Road House, a dark, windowless building that promises the finest burgers in town and Polish and American food. Politics is rarely a topic of discussion, the waitress says, except where it intersects with union concerns.

As ZZ Top plays on the jukebox, Bill Riley shoots pool with a friend near a UAW flag that hangs on the wall. Riley has worked at the Daimler truck plant for eight years, and says the president has done a fine job, up to now.

"I have no complaints. But I wonder if it's the calm before the storm," Mr. Riley says, pausing between shots. "I don't see that he's pro-union, that's my beef. Honestly? I care about me and my family. As long as we're taken care of, I'm fine."

Riley says he'd love to see Bush reach out to unions, but he needs to see real action, not just words. He, along with several other patrons, worries that the North American Free Trade Agreement will be expanded.

Sitting nearby, a 17-year veteran of the truck plant who gives his name only as Paul, says Bush doesn't bother him either. "I'm working and I'm doing OK." He doesn't blame the president for the economic slowdown.

Still, he says he didn't vote for Bush and probably wouldn't, because "I just don't like him. It's a personal thing. I don't like the way he rode his daddy's coattails." He admits, however, that might be willing to take a fresh look at Bush in 2004 provided he hasn't "screwed everything up."

While it is true that three years is a lifetime in politics, Bush's effort to woo unions is likely to be more complicated than meeting with labor leaders and speaking to union groups. What goes into an individual vote is no more simple here than anywhere else.

"Unions are far from monolithic," says David Rohde, a political scientist at Michigan State University. "Gore won 59 percent of union households in November, but remember Bush won 37."

Even with Macomb's heavy union presence, Bush did better here than in the state as a whole. He lost Michigan by 5 percent, but Macomb by 2.5 percent. And Reagan's victories in the county in 1980 and 1984 came even as unions endorsed his rivals and mobilized against him.

Still, Bush won't find it easy to increase his tally. Many analysts have said that his decision on stem cells would help pacify Catholic voters, Mr. Rohde says it will likely help him little in Macomb. "Bush got a chunk of conservative Catholic voters in the election and that decision means he still has them, but it hasn't helped him expand the vote."

Joe Siwick, heading home from his shift at the stamping plant, gladly stops when offered the chance to talk about the president. The stem cell decision didn't impress him much. "I'm a Christian, and being a Christian I think all life is precious, but that stem-cell decision was all political. Besides, being a Christian I also think you have an obligation to help the poor, and his tax cut is giving all the rich a big break and the poor are getting nothing."

But is he open to possibly voting for the president? "No," he says with finality, "and neither are many of the people I know."