WDIV Channel 4 in Detroit recently uncovered blatant abuses by Ford employees and UAW officials at the company's plant in Sterling Heights. In separate exposés, camera crews caught employees stretching half-hour lunch breaks into three-hour drinking binges, and observed union officials sleeping in, leaving early, running errands and making trips to party stores, all while supposedly working.

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Even for a long-time union critic such as myself, the video is stunning: groups of workers ordering shots of tequila as their lunch break extends for hours and doing more of the same the very next day, and union officials heading home after only a few hours at the plant while their time cards show them putting in extensive overtime.

Just as disconcerting is the silence of the UAW itself. To this point neither the UAW headquarters in Detroit, nor their regional office in Warren has made any public comment on any of this.

No employer should be expected to tolerate such blatantly irresponsible behavior. And frankly no self-respecting worker should want to engage in this sort of thing.

I won't pretend I've never stretched a break for longer than the time allotted in the employee handbook, or that I've never ordered a beer with lunch. But I do have a conscience and that conscience tells me that if I'm being paid to work for eight hours I should spend the bulk of that time actually working, and while an occasional cold one probably won't hurt, multiple shots of hard liquor is not a good idea for someone who plans on heading back to the job.

I hate to think I'm all that much more diligent than the average auto worker, which means that there are a whole lot of GM, Ford, and Chrysler employees who are a lot more hard-working than the folks Channel 4 caught. Oh, they may goof off every now and then — that's just human nature — but as a general rule they care about their jobs; they show up and work hard. Maybe they are sticklers for the rules and maybe they aren't, but they are honest men and women who try to earn their pay.

Every month the equivalent of two hours of their pay — the typical UAW dues arrangement - goes to a union that apparently sees no serious problems with three-hour liquid lunches, or with their own officers charging the company thousands of dollars of pay for working hours that they spend at home or running errands. That's because Michigan does not have a right-to-work law, meaning that ordinary workers are forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment. Is it right to force the honest and responsible to pay dues for a union that tolerates such irresponsibility?

Or maybe these sorts of things really are common and even accepted among UAW members. If it is, that opens up a whole other set of questions.

Among the most important is what this means for labor costs. Much of the debate over federal aid for Detroit focused on the role of the UAW and the relative cost of labor for union and non-union automakers; opponents of aid argued that the cost of labor was much higher for the unionized companies, and that the solution for Detroit was to get labor costs under control. Detroit's defenders claimed that the gap was relatively narrow and set to disappear as concessions from the 2007 collective bargaining agreement take effect. Both sides had their own calculations, but were those calculations based on an eight-hour work day or the five-hour work day that those union members caught on tape apparently feel they are permitted to put in?

WDIV deserves credit for taking on a difficult subject — abuses committed by UAW members and officers who are usually thought of as a pillar of our local economy. Given the most recent car sales reports, it is very likely that GM, Chrysler, and maybe Ford as well, will want further government assistance in order to avoid bankruptcy. At a minimum, Congress should demand a full accounting of how widespread these abuses are, and demand that they be brought to an end, before they hand over another taxpayer dollar.


Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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