Motor City finds labor clout weakened amid spending
cuts, new legislation
By Michael A. Fletcher
The Washington Post
Monday, April 25, 10:23 PM
DETROIT -- Public-sector unions are on the defensive in
this historic stronghold of organized labor. With the
city mired in fiscal distress for years, workers have
been asked to give and give again.
Now, Mayor Dave Bing (D) wants city employees to pay
significantly more for health care and pensions. What
the unions do not give, he warned, the government will
take by using a new state law allowing a
state-appointed fiscal manager to void their collective
"It's that simple," Bing said in his recent budget
Bold action by Republican governors to rein in
government spending and labor power by curtailing
collective-bargaining rights have been met with
raucous, if ultimately unsuccessful, protests from
union leaders and their allies in places including
Wisconsin and Ohio.
But Bing's move to extract new concessions from
Detroit's 12,000 municipal workers has been met with no
such outpouring. "I don't know that there is a whole
lot to stop him," said Roger Rice, a city mechanic for
the past 37 years.
The absence of any large protest highlights the
conundrum facing labor and its progressive allies as
more states, cities and towns run by their putative
Democratic allies are confronted with staggering debt
and budget problems. For many of them, the most viable
solution is to demand more from labor unions that are
among their strongest political supporters.
Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's
Future, a progressive activist group, pointed out that
there were major differences between political leaders
seeking concessions and those seeking to weaken unions.
Still, he added, "Democratic leaders shouldn't be using
the threat of laws put there by Republicans to
As much as they abhor the budgetary solutions offered
by many Republican governors, union leaders are finding
that the solutions offered by hard-pressed Democratic
leaders are often similar in substance, if not in tone.
"Unions are simply making the best of a bad situation,"
said Taylor E. Dark III, a professor at California
State University at Los Angeles who studies the
relationship between organized labor and Democratic
politicians. "Public employee unions are aware that
they need to accept some pain now, and they would
rather control how that pain is inflicted, as opposed
to the loss of control that occurs under Republican
In New York and California, Democratic governors have
not attacked collective bargaining, but they have also
demanded major concessions from workers to help close
yawning budget deficits.
In Wisconsin and Ohio, new Republican governors have
significantly curtailed or eliminated
collective-bargaining rights for public employees,
moves they said were made to give themselves as well as
local leaders a freer hand to make badly needed cuts.
Michigan's new governor, Rick Snyder (R), signed
legislation last month empowering his appointed
emergency financial managers to void municipal union
contracts in distressed municipalities across the
Former D.C. school board president and city
administrator Robert Bobb, now the state-appointed
fiscal manager overseeing Detroit's deficit-ridden
public schools, has hinted at doing away with seniority
rights, allowing managers to choose which teachers are
laid off or reassigned.
In financially strapped Benton Harbor, Mich., the
state-appointed financial manager stripped control from
city officials, meaning boards, commissions and
authorities cannot act without his explicit approval.
Bing is using the new law as a potent trump card as he
attempts to squeeze badly needed savings from
once-powerful labor unions.
"For much of the 20th century, Detroit was the
epicenter of labor power in America," said Harley
Shaiken, a University of California at Berkeley
professor who focuses on labor issues. "Many people
have taken labor attitudes of the 1950s and
superimposed them on 2011. But unions know they are
dealing in a profoundly new reality. You have seen
unions make very painful concessions. No one is denying
Decades ago, when Detroit earned the proud moniker
Motor City, it was home to a thriving and decidedly
blue-collar middle class built largely by the clout of
organized labor. Detroit is now renowned as a national
symbol of urban dysfunction, and as Bing tries
desperately to change that reputation, he often finds
himself at odds with the city's labor unions.
Bing has overseen modest reductions in the city's
homicide and unemployment rates, but he faces a
monumental task as he works to bring huge budget
deficits under control in a city that lost 25 percent
of its population in the past decade.
Even as the city is shrinking, Bing calls the current
state of city services unacceptable. And he says they
are not going to improve unless he can reduce the
city's personnel costs, which are overwhelming the
budget. This year, the city paid $200 million in
pension benefits, which Bing said was $25 million more
than the city paid for fire department and ambulance
services last year.
"The old days, when getting a good city job meant that
you put in your 20 years with the expectation that city
government could take care of you for the next 40, is
no longer a realistic or viable option," Bing said.
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