Blaming justly compensated workers and their fringe benefits for Michigan and America’s fiscal woes is the popular battle cry trumpeted by corporate kingpins, desperate office holders, and out of touch editorial boards throughout our state and nation.
Viewing our current economic straits from that perspective combines the historical accuracy of Oliver Stone with the compassion of Simon Cowell. Throw in the honesty of Bernie Madoff for good measure. It’s better fantasy than Harry Potter.
Following this line of mythology lower paid workers with no benefits, or unions to look out for them, are our paths to progress in the 21st Century. That’s a line our citizens are too smart to buy, but that doesn’t keep talk show demagogues or corporate shills from trying to sell it.
Why is it that too many corporations, city commissions and councils, college trustees, public school boards, and other entities public and private hire their CEOs at top dollar, with lucrative multi-year contracts, complete with golden parachutes and generous expense allowances after costly national searches conducted by high paid headhunters usually outsourced from a different state or city?
Freshly hired head honchos then quickly recruit their own staff of lavishly paid and perked administrators, usually aided by the same consultants who chose them. Of course these “experts” are once again paid handsomely for their superfluous services. All this is done in the name of getting the very best people with the reasoning being—YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR AND TO GET THE VERY BEST WORKERS YOU MUST PAY THEM THE BEST SALARY WITH THE BEST BENEFIT PACKAGE! Really, why then doesn’t that logic apply to the essential people actually doing the work?
Ironically, these overpaid layers of novices are often charged with cutting costs and increasing productivity. How about leadership by example starting with the ones being paid the most and who are the least essential? I know it makes too much sense and besides it would distract us from the easy scapegoating of workers as the problem.
In Michigan our State Senate and Lieutenant Governor took this absurdity to an even higher level by defeating an amendment limiting the salary of an Emergency Manager appointed to take control of (and oddly enough be paid by) a nearly insolvent city or school district to no more than the statutorily required amount paid to Michigan’s Governor which would be a nice sum of about $177,000. Their reasoning of course was we might not get anyone to do the job at such a low price. Our personally wealthy Governor Rick Snyder accepts only a dollar annually from taxpayers and I would submit he is worth every penny!
Reality check time folks, stressed out, underpaid workers aren’t as productive and the taxes they pay cannot sustain our local, state or federal governments.
How do these urban economic legends grow? Far too easily, I’m afraid.
Start with a grain of a truth; throw in a large amount of stereotyping and scapegoating; sprinkle on a heavy dose of exaggeration; fertilize with the manure of demagoguery; and nurture it all with greed and selfishness and over time you will reap a bountiful crop of deceit.
Let’s deconstruct this myth.
Over and over again the lie is repeated. Well paid workers with pensions, health insurance, safety regulations and other fringe benefits are the reason our economy collapsed. It falls apart quickly in the face of historical facts and evidence.
Michigan’s once legendary economy resulted from the energy, creativity, and diligence of our workers. The Arsenal of Democracy and the manufacturing giant envied by the world wasn’t created by over paid and underworked sloths interested only in union organizing.
Henry Ford was a selfish, miserly, bigot but he was smart enough to build a product his workers could produce and afford to buy. Granted the unions helped him along after a bitter struggle, but Ford recognized the buying power of workers and the multiplying effect on our economy. If labor and management join together in mutual respect nothing is impossible to achieve in business or government.
Rather than hurting the economy, organized labor worked with business to build the middle class. Buying power of fairly compensated employees drove the economic engine of success. That’s the reason Detroit once led the nation in single family home ownership. Employee heath care coverage ensured productivity and high morale. Life insurance prevented financial calamities and kept survivors whole and society secure. Earned pensions improved the quality of life and provided security in the golden years. Our strong tax base gave us effective state and local government services: superb public safety; wonderful recreational opportunities; a strong infrastructure system of free highways, good roads, and secure bridges; thriving and stable communities with excellent public school systems. Michigan was a state people flocked to as a great place to live, work and raise a family. No one builds a solid foundation of commerce with a low paid and demoralized work force.
What happened to Michigan’s economy?
The Federal government blundered into free trade agreements skewered to the benefits of other countries and multinational corporations placing American manufacturers at an unfair disadvantage. Our well trained and highly skilled workforce can compete against any country in the world on an even playing field, but that doesn’t exist. Instead they face products made by prison, child, and even slave labor. Lax, unenforced, or entirely absent safety rules and environmental standards aided and abetted at times by corrupt governments permit foreign manufacturers a decidedly lower cost advantage over their American competitors. Though some of our foreign competitors facing rising energy, transportation, and even labor costs and are in danger of losing some of their price advantage. Heaven knows they can’t match our quality. So they are exploiting the resources and workers of even poorer countries to hold unto the low prices needed for profit. Do we really want to join them in this race to the bottom at the cost of human rights and environmental destruction?
Even the American consumer doesn’t benefit from these trade laws. Low quality imports such as toxic toys from China are recalled weekly and health problems often result from contaminated agricultural products from other countries.
Corporate America’s unbridled greed, incompetence, and reckless spending also helped crash the economy. Gamblers on Wall Street and their bank buddies risked everything, lost, and received a huge taxpayer bailout.
Yet the mantra continues it is the worker’s wages and benefits bringing America down.
Are labor unions perfect? Of course not. They’re run by fallible human beings subject to the same weaknesses, corruption, and stupidity as their corporate counterparts.
Too often used as easy scapegoats to cover management mistakes, there are still times when concessions of hard won wages and benefits are warranted to ensure an employer’s and their own economic vitality. The evidence of their cooperation during this recession are many, but when management moves overseas, not because they are losing money but because their greed demands more, the lost purchasing power of the workers triggers a downward spiral in the economy and destroys the tax base for every level of government negatively impacting the quality of life in our communities.
Nowadays the social justice accomplishments of organized labor and the sacrifices made by union pioneers are often forgotten or taken for granted.
Every working person in America has been positively affected by the work rules, safety standards and wage and hour regulations achieved by organized labor, not to mention progress in civil rights and other areas.
Does anyone really believe American’s standard of living was beneficently granted by the captains of corporate America? Though I readily acknowledge there are some generous union and non-union company owners who value their workers. Sadly they have never been the majority and deteriorate often when ownership changes -generational or otherwise.
Labor unions provided the balance assuring workers rights and wages became part of achieving the American dream for everyone.
One final word on union work forces, scan the news in Michigan and you will find more stories of collaboration and cooperation than examples of confrontation.
Where there is labor unrest it more often takes the form of lock-outs where willing workers are denied the
opportunity to do their jobs by management rather than work stoppage by the employees.
Since a large number of public employees are members of organized labor, responsibility for the bleeding governmental budgets at all levels are blamed of course on workers wages and benefits.
Newly elected cadres of Governors are using pliable legislators and willing local elected officials to cut wages and benefits of public employees and limit or in some states eliminate their collective bargaining rights completely.
An unfortunate outright state of wages and benefits war exists between elected leaders and public employees in too many parts of our country dividing the nation to no one’s benefit. Both sides have been guilty of stupid excesses.
Citizens fired up by elected demogues hurl insults at dedicated public servants who protect them, teach their children or make their state and communities decent places to live and work in countless ways. People need to be educated in facts and courtesy. Some union members have gotten in the faces of legislators and blocked or tried to prevent them from carrying out their elected duties. Intimidation wins nothing, plays into stereotypes, and makes the victim look like a hero on the news. Profanity and vulgarity let off steam but takes the wind out of your argument. Debate civilly with facts, using reason in a verbal version of Aikido and you can leave your opponent disarmed, defeated and if you do it with the right touch of razor sharp, but gentle wit, even laughing.
Taking to the streets means non-violent demonstrations with intelligent speakers eloquently laying out the facts infused with truth and justice. Moral authority and servant leadership enabled Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and union leaders to win victories in civil rights and labor. It’s also one of the reasons why the labor movement in America was never seduced and corrupted by communism. Rights are won because they are natural rights. Fear of lost income and falling standards of living have infected many resulting in some aberrant behavior. Genuine civic leaders need to cool passions with sincere dialogue and logic not inflame them with political platitudes to fuel future ambitions.
Instead of looking for strategic ways to address structural problems, elected officials want the focus off their incompetence and join the familiar chorus of worker blame. Editorial boards spurred on by business leaders and opportunistic politicians are now even calling for an end to the binding arbitration process operated by professionally qualified impartial arbitrators glibly pronouncing since they believe the arbitrators must take turns being fair to everyone or they lose their jobs they can’t be called impartial any longer. Where is the evidence of their convoluted logic?
If there is a system of justice operating effectively for years and you have valid concerns then amend it, don’t end it!
Police and firefighters, the protectors of our communities putting their lives on the line daily to protect and serve, have no other recourse for justice except for Public Act 312 in Michigan and similar protections in other states that established an unbiased arbitration system. It is not used often and they certainly don’t win every time, so why deprive them of their only mechanism of due process when it comes to labor contracts?
America can’t survive as a superpower or remain an economic giant without manufacturing products. Historically, even wars are won by the side with the strongest industrial base. Governments run effectively with a competent well trained and experienced workforce.
Government trade policies promoting free and fair trade coupled with strategic investments in research and
development, along with high tech workforce training and a commitment to affordable quality education is the recipe to rebuild our economy.
When the high paying jobs return so will Michigan’s and our Nation’s economy and tax base. High paid workers with their buying power and tax paying ability are the solution, not the problem.