Ron Gettelfinger attacks right-to-work while hiding behind Martin Luther King's reputation

I apologize for taking so long to respond to Ron Gettelfinger’s article in last Thursday’s Detroit News. I have to tell you I’ve really struggled with it. My first response was a six-page rant, but then I came to think that I might have done just as well with a simple “whatever.” ThenI realized I needed to come up with something in between, so I’ll do my best. Just understand there are multiple layers of inanity behind Gettelfinger’s words. Start to pry beneath any of it and you risk hours of frantically trying to document the stuff he gets wrong only to realize you’re just scratching the surface.

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Anyway, Gettelfinger starts out by evoking Dr. Martin Luther King, the great civil rights leader. King was also a supporter of unions and was opposed to right-to-work laws, under which workers cannot be forced to support a union as a condition of employment. King was a great and wise man, but he was neither omniscient nor infallible. There are many things King did not live to see that might have led him to reconsider his positions about unions, of particular relevance to Gettelfinger would be the collapse of the American auto industry and the simultaneous decline of Detroit as a great city. Another issue that might have gotten Dr. King’s attention would be the evolution of teachers unions into the most stubborn defenders of the educational status quo. Many African-American families rely on a public education system that serves them poorly, but teachers unions continue to use all their power to block reforms such as merit pay. King wouldn’t necessarily be on our side today – it’s impossible to know either way – but a lot has changed since he walked among us.

From there, Gettelfinger transitions to champion of African American interests. He selectively quotes income and benefit numbers for unionized and non-unionized African Americans and paints a rosy picture of life in Michigan under the benevolent gaze of the unions. From his numbers it would appear that African-Americans often benefit from union representation, but that’s irrelevant because hyperventilating union rhetoric aside, nobody is talking about taking away the right to organize. What matters is how Michigan’s residents are faring in a state with some of the country’s most powerful unions.

Meanwhile Gettelfinger ignores (or maybe just doesn’t want to consider) more troubling numbers. In Michigan the unemployment rate for blacks is 21 percent, compared to 14.6 percent for the state as a whole. According to the Michigan League for Human Services, median family income in Michigan fell 10 percent between 2001 and 2008. For African-American families, the drop was steeper, 16 percent. Poverty rates are higher for African-Americans too, 30.3 percent compared to only 11 percent for whites. In other words, while conditions in Michigan are tough for everyone, they have been especially rough on blacks. That’s how things are right now, without right-to-work and with the state in the grip of politically powerful unions.

Finally, Gettelfinger argues that “federal law already says no one can be forced to join a union.” Technically that’s true, but he’s splitting legal hairs. Without right-to-work, workers can be forced to pay an “agency fee,” roughly equivalent to union dues, if they decline formal union membership. Those union dues (or agency fees, if you prefer) can add up to hundreds of dollars every year, turned over to union officials with little accountability for how they are used.

Ron Gettelfinger closes by quoting King again, which is understandable. If you had the UAW’s record, you’d be tempted to hide behind a great man’s rhetoric of 40 years ago, too.