Detroit has long been called labor town, an identification that reminds anyone coming to this town about how the city’s power structure is intricately wedded into the business of the union shop.
And that’s because the city has long been the home of the labor movement. Labor’s foothold in Detroit’s long political history is so strong, to the extent that anyone running for elected office has to be endorsed by labor because they risk losing an election or nomination without the vocal backing of union officials.
That is the influence of labor in Detroit and across the state. That is the mark with which many have come to either like or hate labor leaders, who have used their position over time to rail against what they perceive as threats to the “working class” of America, and consequently Detroit.
But the battle to reach a recent consent agreement between the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan has put labor – especially AFSCME-Local 25 and Local 207 and other unions — in somewhat of a bind, where they have no choice but to either accept the reality of the terms of the agreement, or fight in court and take it to the streets.
The vehement opposition by labor to a state intervention in the form of a Financial Advisory Board, that will oversee the finances of Detroit while keeping in play the role of the mayor and the city council, shows the clear-cut contrast in views about how Detroit should move forward.
“The citizens of Detroit were betrayed by the vote that the council took. It is not unusual for council to say one thing in the corridors of power and say a different thing when voting at the table,” AFSCME Local 25 President Albert Garrett told me in an exclusive interview at his downtown office. “They voted for their jobs, not the citizens of Detroit.”
Garret, is referring to the five City Council members — Charles Pugh, Gary Brown, Saunteel Jenkins, James Tate and Ken Cockrel Jr. — who voted in favor of a consent agreement to stave off the appointment of an emergency manager.
“I would have preferred for the city to fight for the right to self-determination,” Garrett said.
And what does that mean?
Garrett, said the council should have opposed the current agreement which takes aim at unions, and he strongly feels it is a direct attack on union work rules.
Yet, he admits that past administrations, including the current Dave Bing administration, did not do much to prevent the financial crisis that is now before the city, one that is set to see 2,500 workers laid off in the proposed budget. The Mayor’s Office is projecting that the layoffs and other cuts in the budget will save the city more than $200 million.
Garrett said there are many ways the state could have intervened in helping Detroit and not be involved in its own governance. An example he said is income tax “because a number of major employers of labor in this city do not take income tax checks unless residents ask for it.”
Is labor’s power waning in all of these political battles due to perception issues or real life matters?
“I think people have a singular focus when it comes to unions and they think our primary role is to protect bad employees. The fact of the matter is that protecting bad employees is further from the truth. Our fiduciary responsibility is protecting all employees,” said Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.
“Having said that, that is such a minimal part of what we do. We are creating the optimum opportunity for people. I think people have also lost sight of the fact that whether you are talking about the city, state and the nation, we became the greatest country ever known to man because of working class people.”
Johnson said labor has been mischaracterized as being antithetical to the American Dream, “when in the right to basic decent living is the American Dream. When did it become virtually a crime for a labor organization to try to look after the people that it represent?”
“We’ve been painted as a group of self-serving people interested in membership instead of caring for the community,” Garrett said. “It serves the political process and those who do not subscribe to labor’s view.”
Kevin Tolbert, assistant director, UAW Insurance at Ford Department, has been involved in many labor fights in the city, helping to organize.
“I don’t like what is going on. Our opinions don’t matter anymore and that is not democracy,” Tolbert said. “We can’t cut our way through prosperity and we have to find ways to reduce money and cost.”
Tolbert added that the city should look into helping its workers and giving them incentives that will make them more likely to continue to stay in the city, instead of cutting their wages.
“We are only attacking people who are making less money,” Tolbert said. “I don’t know what we can cut anymore.”
Labor officials and their members are currently collecting signatures to create a ballot language in November for voters to support a constitutional amendment to collective bargaining, in essence making collective bargaining a constitutional right and thus protect it from legislative actions.
“I think labor’s influence is yet to be determined and we’ll get a chance to show our role and impact,” Tolbert says of the collective bargaining signature drive.
Johnson said, “This is the best way to ensure that collective bargaining rights will not be circumvented,” adding that “the process behind this is not to weaken the employer. We don’t believe that the interests of the employer and the employee is mutually exclusive.”
Johnson noted an example of how collaboration works between labor and
employers is how the United Auto Workers worked with the auto industry for a turnaround that is now seeing gains.
Garrett said unions are not just opposed to one administration, citing an example of how AFSCME strongly disagreed with one of the city’s former mayors, Coleman Young.
“Mayor Young was not a strong supporter of public sector unions,” Garrett said. “Circumstances do impact individuals that may cause them angst, but how do you determine there is the zeal to protect workers? The council majority is not a supporter of unions or workers for that matter.”
The current contract between the city and unions ends in June, which promises to be another showdown as the City of Detroit names members to the Financial Review Board.
Garret said he hopes those who are selected will be individuals who have the interests of the average struggling Detroit-er in mind.
“I’m really not that optimistic. We have these concessions that were negotiated, and now with the consent agreement they are going to take a hit. We are the city that put the world on wheels,” Johnson said. “Even when you have to address the quality of life issues in the city of Detroit, whether its street lights or abandoned houses, in order to stop the exodus of people leaving Detroit, provide incentive to people to stay in Detroit. I refuse to give up on Detroit.”
Bankole Thompson is the editor of the Michigan Chronicle and the author of a six-part series on the Obama presidency, including “Obama and Black Loyalty,” published last year. His latest book is ”Obama and Christian Loyalty” with an epilogue written by Bob Weiner, former White House spokesman. His upcoming books in 2012 are “Obama and Jewish Loyalty” and ”Obama and Business Loyalty.” Listen to him every Thursday morning on WDET 101.9 FM Detroit and every Sunday, 9 to 10 p.m., on “The Obama Watch” program on WLIB 1190 AM-New York. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.