First, let me acknowledge that labor unions have played an important role in leveling the playing field between workers and management. There was a time when industrial and business owners could get away with exploiting workers, making them work long hours in dirty, dangerous conditions for low wages. Child labor was common.Labor unions’ activism and involvement in the political arena helped bring about landmark legislation such as the Clayton Act, Wagner Act, Railway Labor Act, and various reforms prohibiting child labor.
But the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. You could see it coming as far back as the 1970s, as the Big Three automakers increasingly began offshoring production and using robotics in their plants.
Some UAW locals had a reputation for being more militant than others. Flint, Michigan, was already going rapidly downhill when General Motors decided to shut down the massive Buick City complex in 1999 and move most of its operations elsewhere. The city is but a shell of its former self, and the UAW Locals are partly to blame.
The union’s obstinance in contract negotiations, plus an inordinate number of line workers who decided to use alcohol and/or smoke pot during their working hours back in the 1970s and 1980s, helped seal GM’s decision.
These days, public employee unions are growing in membership and clout while the UAW wanes. Increased automation and computerization in manufacturing, plus the Big Three’s plunging domestic sales, are far more responsible for the UAW’s slide than NAFTA, despite what the demagogues say.
What’s amazing — or on second thought, maybe NOT so amazing — is the intransigence of public employee unions in giving up some benefits or chipping in more for their health care costs. All of this while unemployment is sky-high and the economy continues cratering. Two examples that come to mind are State of Michigan civil service employees, and Detroit’s city unions.
Michigan and Detroit are facing major budget crises. Both need desperately to restructure, but to do so will be difficult. Michigan is led by a spineless governor (Jennifer Granholm) who is in the vest pocket of unions. Until just a few months ago, Detroit was led by a mayor and city council that kowtowed to unions.
Now, fortunately, former NBA star Dave Bing is at the helm, and the self-made millionaire has stated he'll do what it takes to right the city's finances, even if it means he's a one-term mayor. He’s delivered an ultimatum: He will lay off 1,000 of the city's 13,000 workers in the next few weeks and also needs the unions to take a 10 percent pay cut to help shrink Detroit's $350 million budget deficit. Otherwise, come Oct. 1, the city could fall into receivership.
Predictably, the militant unions have resisted. At a recent demonstration, union members waved pickets stating, "Mayor Resign Now" and "No Pink Slips." The Detroit News quoted AFSCME Local 207 President John Riehl as saying, "We know this isn't a battle just for the unions, but for our city. This is the battle for Detroit."
Umm, yeah, John, it is a battle for Detroit, but not in the way you think it is. It is a battle to keep Detroit solvent, not to preserve city government as a jobs program.
Meanwhile, in Lansing, Gov. Tinkerbell plans to use Obama stimulus funds to plug part of the FY 2010 $2.2 billion deficit. But don't be surprised if she and the Democrats try to force another tax increase down the throats of long-suffering Michiganders. Democratic House Speaker Andy DIllon, to his credit, proposed a reform program to save millions of dollars by reducing the gold-plated health insurance benefits enjoyed by 400,000 Michigan employees. Unions and even his fellow Democrats are castigating him for this as they remain delusional about the severity of Michigan's fiscal condition.
City of Detroit and State of Michigan union members, as well as unionized rank and file across this great land, can whine all they want about having to grant wage concessions, be furloughed for unpaid days off, and contribute more toward their health insurance premiums and co-pays. But they really ought to be grateful they have jobs.
On Labor Day 2009, there are PLENTY of white-collar workers with far more educational achievement than the majority of those union members who are OUT OF WORK and have slim prospects for finding a good job. They would give their eye teeth to have the opportunity to give up some wages or have a greater amount deducted from paychecks for health care. But you cannot make concessions if you don't even have a job.