Fools vs. scoundrels

Bob King's failed promise and labor's peril

Dec 5, 2012 at 12:00 am

When Bob King became head of the incredible shrinking United Auto Workers union two years ago, the word was that he wanted to be the greatest UAW leader since the legendary Walter Reuther.

Instead, he seems more likely to be remembered as the worst leader the union has ever had, and he has a year and a half to go before the UAW will mercifully replace him.

The autoworkers union was well on its way to its all-time high of 1.5 million members when Reuther died in a plane crash near Pellston in 1970. Today, it has barely one-fourth of that. Actually, membership has risen a tiny bit in the last year, as the domestic automakers have come back from their near-death experience. But the union still has only 380,000 members, and about one-third of those are in non-automotive occupations.

Most new hires now come in at a second-class wage scale of less than $30,000 a year. Two-tier wage scales were one of the many things unions wanted to prevent, back in the day.

To which today's leaders say: Well, hey. Someday we'll be strong again.

When King got elected in June 2010, he vowed to pursue "equality of gain," under which the rich guys running the corporations would share their renewed profits with the workers.

Right. OK, if you are finished laughing bitterly, he also vowed to begin organizing the "transplants," the auto factories, mostly in the South, owned by foreign companies.

When King became president, the UAW represented workers at none of these plants. Today, well ... the union represents workers at none of these plants. The union was, however, reportedly handing out material a few months ago at a new Volkswagen plant in Tennessee.

Be still, my beating heart. The King-led UAW's biggest mistake, however, one that must have depleted the union's treasury, came this year. The UAW threw everything it had behind the drive to enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.

They spent millions. Opponents spent millions, and the unions lost, big-time. The collective bargaining amendment went down roughly 57 percent to 42 percent. Voters in Flint and Detroit supported it, and it got killed virtually everywhere else.

Not surprisingly, Republicans in the Legislature are now gleefully jumping on this as a chance to destroy unions once and for all, by making Michigan a "right-to-work" state, like Indiana.

That would mean the union shop, where all workers have to join a union, or agree to be represented by it, would be outlawed. For all practical purposes, that would mean unions would be absolutely powerless, and would probably soon become extinct.

State Rep. Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) is salivating over the prospect of introducing a RTW bill. Shirkey owns a nonunion rivet-making factory in Jackson County, and claims "businesses will not be able to survive unless they treat people right and pay people right."

Yes, I think that's what the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory said, as they locked all those young women in before they burned to death in that famous fire in 1911. Shirkey seems to have gotten up a hate for union work rules when he worked half a year in some GM plants decades ago. Now, few would deny that there has been a lot of silliness and inefficiency in certain unions. But a lot of that has been wrung out of them, especially, perhaps, the battered UAW. American auto factories today aren't the same place as in 1970.

But there's no evidence that unions aren't needed, or that businesses flock to right-to-work states. Minnesota and Vermont, where unions are protected, have among the nation's lowest unemployment rates. Former Detroiter Art Kainz notes that his adopted North Carolina, a RTW state, has unemployment higher than Michigan's. There, he told me, Sunday a Japanese seatbelt manufacturer in Greensboro just announced plans to close.

Sayonara, job security.

Gov. Rick Snyder has repeatedly said right to work "is not on my agenda." But if an RTW bill lands on his desk, he is all but certain to sign it. There were reports late last week that he was open to trying to kill the bill if unions agreed to, essentially, roll over and play dead. 

My guess is that won't fly. Republicans have the votes either now or in the next session to pass right to work if they want to, possibly thanks again to the stupidity of Bob King and his sidekick, perpetual Democratic State Chair Mark Brewer. 

Imagine if the union had taken the money — as much as $20 million — spent on the collective bargaining amendment and used it instead on a carefully targeted attempt to win control of the Legislature.

Democrats did gain five seats in the House last month, after losing a staggering 20 seats, and control, two years before. But Republicans still control the chamber, 59 seats to 51.

Had a mere 3,000 votes switched in the right places, Democrats would now be able to block any of the GOP's crazier bills.

Last week, for example, Michigan refused to create a state-run health care exchange, to help uninsured residents and small businesses find health care policies, now that President Obama's affordable care act is kicking in.

Republicans are supposed to be for local control. But they refused to create a health care exchange, and left that to the federal government. Why? Because they don't like Obamacare.

Last spring they refused to create an exchange because they hoped the Supreme Court would rule it unconstitutional. Then they refused to create one because they thought Mitt Romney would win and take nasty universal health care away. Instead he lost.

So now they just pout, stamp their feet, and take it out on the citizens. This wouldn't have happened if the Democrats had won the House. And there would be no right-to-work threat today.

But that's not what happened. In a classic boneheaded Brewer move, Democrats spent lavishly on an attempt to defeat Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, who was caught up in the party-switching scandal. They narrowed his margin, but he survived.

No surprise; he has a heavily GOP seat. But if they had knocked him off — so what? Republicans would just have picked another speaker. Bolger is tainted goods anyway, and could still be indicted by the one-woman grand jury now investigating the scandal.

Wouldn't it have been better for both the unions and the party to try to win a Democratic majority? I'm sorry. That would mean rational thought. So now the unions, instead of being protected by the constitution, are facing a fight for survival.

We'll see what happens next. There has been a faction of coldly calculating businessmen — Snyder is one — who have thought there was no reason to rile up union supporters with right to work.

The unions, they argue behind closed doors, have been working hard at making themselves irrelevant and impotent anyway.

Apparently, they were more right than they knew. 

Tribute to Sonny: Sonny Eliot was a cultural icon for a zillion baby boomers who grew up in these parts, and a lifelong Detroiter who genuinely loved the city. He may have not been the world's most progressive thinker, but he did spend more than a year squatting in a Nazi prison camp, which is more than most of us have ever done.

Wayne State University is putting on a special tribute to the man Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. in the school's Community Arts Auditorium. A number of well-known media personalities are going to speak, and they are going to be nice enough to let me talk too.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].