COLUMBUS - A surprise visit by President Barack Obama capped the first day of the Ohio State AFL-CIO Convention here Monday where delegates heard a continuous cascade of powerful appeals to fully mobilize labor behind the President in the all-important November election.
Fresh from a rally of 4,500 supporters downtown where he announced the filing of a case with the World Trade Organization against unfair Chinese subsidies to auto parts exported to the U.S., the President ridiculed GOP opponent Mitt Romney's claim he "would get tough with China."
Romney, he said, "is one of the pioneers of outsourcing jobs. During his entire history he has been comfortable with shipping jobs to countries like China."
He and Romney have "two fundamentally different visions of the economy. Romney's vision is top-down. Give tax cuts to the wealthy in the morning and tax cuts at night. Roll back regulations and then go back to more tax cuts."
But Obama said his vision was for an America where "if you work hard, you can make it. You can have a home, a job, good health care and retirement and help your kids. That's what the union movement is about, what America is about."
"We're not going backwards. We're going forwards!" he said as the delegates rose to chant: "Four More Years! Four More Years!"
"America grows best when everybody plays by the same rules," Obama said. "We will finish what we started."
That theme was driven home all afternoon as Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman, State AFL-CIO President Tim Burga, Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown told the 500 delegates, alternates and guests that the right-wing extremist GOP was out to destroy the union movement and that organized labor was key to defending living standards and democratic rights.
Coleman, the first African American mayor of Ohio's capital city, said that this is the "most important race in all my years in politics, the most important race in our country's history" Noting that there had already been 31 visits by the members of the two presidential tickets, he said "Ohio is key." He praised Obama's achievements in health care, saving the auto industry and "providing a lifeline to Columbus" with stimulus funds for police, firefighters and construction workers. "We need to continue down this path."
The Republicans, he said, "will do anything, say anything, suppress any vote."
Burga, standing on the dais in front of banners reading "Forged By Struggle" and "Powered By Unity," recalled the "generations of struggles by working people to share the wealth they create" and said that "corporate leaders have recruited politicians to take us back to the time when capital was king."
"Right-wing ideology has nearly destroyed the middle class," he said, but, despite their relentless attacks, labor and its allies are uniting and fighting back. Last year's successful repeal by referendum of Senate Bill 5, the law stripping collective bargaining rights from 360,000 public employees, showed what labor can do, he said.
"Construction unions, industrial unions and federal unions stepped up to defend public workers," he said. "That's what solidarity is all about. We united with communities and allies. The working class and the middle class became one. When we're right and we unite, we win!" he said as the delegates loudly cheered.
"For the next 50 days we must have the same solidarity. We can't let (Gov. John) Kasich, (Secretary of State Jon) Husted, Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers and the Tea Party turn us back."
The choice, he said, is clear. "It's either backwards with Romney or forward with Obama. What say you?"
"Forward!" shouted the delegates.
"Labor's going to decide this race. Can you get it done?"
"Yes! Yes!" came the full-throated reply.
"We are fighting for our lives," said Ted Strickland. "We are pushing back, but we must become more militant. We can re-establish organized labor as the dominant force in American politics. We can change the very future of our nation.
"We must recognize the threat for what it is," he said. "They want to destroy organized labor."
"I used to be a minister, but now I'm a prophet. This is my prophecy. You're going to work as hard as possible and keep going till the polls close and you're finally sitting at home and just out of spite you turn on Fox News and hear Bill O'Reilly announce that Ohio has voted for Barack Obama!"
"We must beat the right-wing hate machine once and for all," said Trumka. "Trying to reason with those guys is like reasoning with Al Qaeda. They're out to kill us, to take you out."
"The Republican platform is the most anti-working class, anti-union platform in history," he said. "They're coming to get you. Mitt Romney is to working people what Col. Sanders is to chicken."
"This not a slam-dunk election," he said. "There are still people who can't come to terms with the fact that we have an African American president. They won't openly say it. They parrot the right-wing line and blame Obama for everything. ... We can't reach some but we can reach many if we tell the truth."
He then ticked off a whole list of benefits to Ohio working people brought by the Obama Administration and said to deafening applause, "he's just getting started! Imagine what a second term will be like!"
"This is our Ohio and our America. It time we took it back for the workers of our country!"
Photo: President Obama and State AFL-CIO President Tim Burga. Mike Gillis, Ohio AFL-CIO