Politics & Policy

Michigan’s Union Armageddon

Is this the final, agonizing howl?

Detroit — Monday morning, America awoke to heavy artillery on Michigan’s labor front. For a century this was the central battleground of America’s labor movement, but now it is a witness to a union culture in its final throes.

While national headlines focused on the United Auto Workers strike against General Motors, there are actually two union-inspired crises here. Two impasses resulting from the same disease. The UAW’s auto-plant shutdown and a looming state-government shutdown are more than a coincidence in timing; they are both the product of anachronistic union cultures which hold that guaranteed jobs and benefits are an entitlement.

When asked why his union struck financially strapped GM Monday morning, a UAW representative told WWJ Radio that the issue was job security. “We need job guarantees,” he said. “We need to know we have jobs with this company. They want to send jobs to China and Mexico.”

He sounded as clueless as if he had just crawled out of a time capsule and encountered 21st-century Planet Earth for the first time.

In the state capitol of Lansing, a Republican legislative minority is at loggerheads with Democratic governor and staunch union ally, Jennifer Granholm. Gamholm insists on plugging the state’s gaping $1.75 billion budget hole with an 18-percent income-tax increase (in a state with the nation’s largest home foreclosure and unemployment rates. So much for the Democrats’ sympathy for the little guy!). The GOP, on the other hand, understands that a tax Band-aid will not solve Michigan’s long-term problems of huge union overhead costs. To prevent future budget crises, the states’ powerful government unions and their Democrat puppets must give ground on gold-plated teacher pension plans, health-care plans, and privatization issues.

So too, the UAW. General Motors recognizes that current talks are the key to the company’s future. Without fundamental reform of union pension plans, health-care plans, — sound familiar? — and work rules, GM cannot compete in today’s auto market.

Since 1976 — the last time the UAW declared a nation-wide strike — the American auto industry has fundamentally changed. Today, the U.S. industry also includes dozens of non-union Japanese and European plants stretching from Ohio to South Carolina that are not on strike today. They are all still on the job this morning, still producing vehicles, and still eating the Big 3’s lunch.

Michigan residents have watched in horror as these twin slow-motion train wrecks have unfolded slowly and inevitably this summer. Perhaps they are the final, agonizing howl of unions increasingly outmoded in Thomas Friedman’s “flat world” — but they seem determined to take a state and three auto companies with them.

–Henry Payne is a Detroit freelance writer and Detroit News cartoonist. He can be reached at hpayne@detnews.com.

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