Don't blame unions for Detroit's morass

This article originally appeared in the Detroit News on July 27, 2001 at

By Bill Johnson / The Detroit News

Power politics will again play out this year in the Detroit elections. Organized labor is attempting to retain undue control of and influence over the city's politicians. The war that pits the public good against labor promises to continue inflicting collateral damage on Detroit.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the city's largest employee union, has endorsed City Council President Gil Hill for mayor. It's not known what, if any, concessions front-runner Hill had to make to secure what is considered among most Detroit politicians to be a prized endorsement. What we do know is few candidates elected under the union banner have been willing to take positions that labor groups view as harmful to their interests.

AFSCME has made no secret about its objectives: First, to get the City Council to pass an ordinance giving the city employee unions the equivalent of compulsory arbitration in contract talks. Second, to prevent any contracting out of government services that would affect union jobs. These have been litmus tests for mayoral and council contenders and incumbents alike.

As a reminder of the influence of labor on Detroit campaigning, just recall the mayoral election of eight years ago, when the seat was also open. To win labor support, mayoral candidate Dennis Archer pledged never to privatize any city service. The consequences of that "pact with the devil" also is apparent. Essential services are in a shambles; parks and recreational facilities are unkempt. While efficiency suffered, government costs went up -- without accountability measures.

It's likely Mayor Archer's relation with labor also hindered development. The business community privately complains about the mayor's embrace of labor. Potential investors are still apt to inquire whether the climate in the city is pro-labor before making decisions.

Why do the politicians acquiesce? Labor is capable of pouring thousands of dollars into a campaign, providing hundreds of volunteers, organizers and foot soldiers and setting up get-out-the-vote phone banks. This well-oiled machinery also can lash out at what it views as pro-business, anti-worker policies. Candidates who oppose such labor-backed initiatives as a "living wage" -- seen as a job killer by business -- are likely to pick up a formidable adversary.

"Ultimately, you have elected leaders who are beholden to a narrow special interest," says Robert Hunter, director of labor policy for the respected Midland-based Mackinac Center. "These groups often turn a blind eye to the greater public interest.

"The chief objective of any labor organization is to preserve and grow its membership. When employee issues conflict with a city's fiscal or operating goals, elected officials who rely on direct or indirect contributions tend to give inordinate weight to labor organizations. It's analogous to workers electing their boss and then bargaining with them later."

Hunter notes that while union membership in Michigan has been dropping, its influence has not. Private-sector union jobs decreased by 1.3 percent between 1999 and 2000, but government union jobs increased by 1.5 percent and now represent about 54 percent of state, county and municipal workers.

Detroit remains a union stronghold. Hunter, though, finds it particularly puzzling that blacks, more than other worker groups, belong to unions.

"Certain unions," says Hunter, "historically discriminated against and prevented blacks from entering, say, the construction trades based on racial considerations. Yet blacks tend to gravitate toward unions because they believe they protect them from discrimination. While union leaders should be at the forefront of preventing such practices, they have done little over the years to rein in some of the mess in their own ranks."

On top of all this, Detroiters are deprived of a high level of services.

But don't blame the unions for the mess in the city. Labor organizations are only as influential as political leaders allow them to be. Unions, for example, aren't responsible for restructuring city government. There's little in the record suggesting Mayor Archer seriously challenged them. So the city employee unions haven't had to work very hard to get their way.

That makes it doubly important that mayoral candidates keep their options open and resist making any pledges to the unions that weigh against the public interest. Clinging to outmoded government practices in the face of compelling evidence that competition is the best antidote to city problems is contrary to good government.

The bottom line is that Detroit may not be able to survive another four years of the old unionism's debilitating influence.

Bill Johnson is a Detroit News editorial writer whose column is published on Friday. He can be reached at (313) 222-2299 or