Column, 672 words

By George, You Don’t Get It

Detroit was a one-industry company town run by executives who forgot how to make cars people wanted to buy.

Donald Kaul

There I was, sitting at my desk and looking out of the window — you know, writing — when my wife came in and plopped down a newspaper article in front of me.

“Read that,” she said with a cruel twinkle in her eye.

It was an article on Detroit by George Will, one of my least favorite columnists. I find his smug arrogance insufferable.



His article on Detroit was no exception. It began with a quotation from Darwin, followed by a biology lecture.

Eventually he got to the subject of Detroit. It seems he had come to Detroit, looked around, and discovered the source of its considerable misery.

Unions. That’s what did Detroit in, Will said — unions and their handmaiden, democracy.

And public unions were supposedly the worst. They were able to help elect the corrupt politicians who granted them fat paychecks and fatter pensions, all while private companies were complicit.

“Auto industry executives, who often were invertebrate mediocrities, continually bought labors peace by mortgaging their companies’ futures in surrenders to union demands,” he wrote.

That’s why they pay Will the big bucks. He can parachute into a place and within a few hours figure things out. Union members are greedy. End of story.

If he had asked me about it, I could have saved him the trip. Of course unions are greedy. A hundred years ago, they asked Samuel Gompers, the most powerful labor leader of his day, what labor wanted and he answered: “More.”

They did then and they do now. So does everybody else. If I’m not mistaken, Will gets upwards of $20,000 for delivering a speech to fat cats who want to hear their prejudices festooned with high-class quotations. But that’s not greed — apparently, it’s the free-market system.

We live in an economic environment where it’s not at all unusual for an executive of a struggling corporation to rake in a million dollars or more in annual compensation.

And if a CEO should be fired for incompetence, he or she gets a gold-plated severance package that makes no sense.

Then there are those financiers paid to move piles of money from one place to another — often for no useful purpose. They always take the trouble to keep a tidy sum for themselves, then claim the right to be taxed at a lower rate than the rest of us.

And take those “entrepreneurs,” like Mitt Romney, who will buy up a healthy company, scoop out its value for their own profit, then leave the shell to the workers, bereft of jobs, pensions, or benefits.

In that atmosphere, do you really expect union workers to sit back and say “Oh, please don’t pay us any more. It might hurt the long-term health of the community.”

Get real.

Yes, Detroit’s public unions were shortsighted, but had they been less so it wouldn’t have made much difference.

Detroit was a one-industry company town run by executives who forgot what that industry was — making cars that people wanted to buy. When the companies began to fail and the jobs began to leave town, the city’s obituary was written on the walls of its ruined factories, unions or no.

Labor unions are among our most vilified institutions these days, their influence disappearing. The last session of the Michigan legislature passed a so-called “right-to-work” law that gutted labor rights, for crying out loud.

Unions deserve some of the criticism they get, certainly, but the answer to the problems they cause is not extermination, but reform. Unlike hedge fund managers, they owe their origins to need as well as greed.

Unions brought a degree of social justice to the workplace. They gave the average working stiff a sense of dignity that laissez faire capitalism denied him or her.

You want a country without unions? Try China, where workers have virtually no rights and workers endure appalling conditions. Or perhaps you’d prefer Russia? I understand Siberia is nice this time of year.

Workers of the world…aw, forget it.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul grew up in Detroit and now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


    I’d like for you to do a story on what’s going on in North Carolina since the GOP takeover (first time in over 100 years). They have only been in office for 7 months but it’s worth a look.

    • talferris

      I can answer that. Paddie boy and the other buffoons are gutting the State. Republicans have finally wrangled control and are in full retribution mode to punish any and all things Democratic because they’ve been powerless for so long. They’ve gutted public education. They’ve gutted unemployment at a time when North Carolina has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. It is the least organized State in the Union insofar as labor and yet, it is the unions that have caused this malady to beset the people. They have no intention of participating in Affordable Healthcare. Paddie developed a budget that had tax reform that helped the upper income tiers but instituted fee increases in places that nominally haven’t seen such increases in years. And the dear boy wants to allow fracking for shale oil. There isn’t an oil shale shelf anywhere near the coast, according to the geology for the entire east coast, but that hasn’t stopped him from pushing this notion forward. Why and for whom is this a good idea? It isn’t the citizens. In fact, I can’t think of one piece of legislation that this gang of idiots have passed since coming to power that has the best interests of the people at heart. It’s all partisan, ultra conservative, and beneficial to the few, not the many. And the absolute worst thing of all is, we’re stuck with him until 2016.

      Don’t get me wrong. Beverly wasn’t anything to write home about. She turned in a dismal performance. But His Lordship McCrory is going to best her performance in his race to the bottom. And he’s modeling his administration after his hero, Scott Walker of WIsconsin. Wanna know what’s going to happen in the next 4 years in North Carolina? Look at WIsconsin.

      God Save the King.

    • talferris

      And the hits just keep on coming; another arriving today. Paddy boy signed the voter fraud law into being. So, no ID, no vote. Why not just extract themselves from behind the veil of legitimacy they choose to cloak themselves in and charge a poll tax? They could use the money to held fund another re-districting scheme. Why not give an intelligence test prior to being allowed to vote? Let’s just take the South back to what it was 160 years ago. That should be conservative enough for the likes of Thom Tillis, Pat McCrory and Dan Forest. Where only a select few owned land and other humans, voted, and women had no property rights, no voting rights, and were considered chattels of those select few. That is the New South these ‘visionaries’ have in mind; a return to the Old South.
      Another ingenious Republican solution to a non-existent problem.

  • T4D

    Donald, I learned this from you long ago, “They’re all in it together!”

  • Johnny Dollar

    So the point is you should have obtained better CEOs and paid them more I presume.

  • Johnny Dollar

    The good news keeps on coming in from the financial press this afternoon, as investors smarten up about big government:

    Saginaw County, Mich., northwest of cash-strapped Detroit, became the latest casualty of the Motor City’s bankruptcy when it postponed a $60 million bond offering that was supposed to sell Thursday.

    The bonds were meant to help fund the county’s pension system. It is at least the third Michigan bond sale to be postponed after Detroit filed for bankruptcy on July 18. Genesee County, Mich., pulled a $53 million bond sale last week and Battle Creek, Mich., decided to postpone a $16 million deal over concerns that investors would demand interest rates that were too high.

  • Rich

    Donald, you say “of course unions are greedy.” In support of this you quote Samuel Gompers as saying “More” in reply to the question “What does labor want?” Gompers recognized the desire in all of us for “more” (call it “greed” if you will) having said “You ask a workingman who makes two dollars a day and he will say he wants ten cents more. Ask a man who makes five dollars a day and he will want fifty cents more. The man who receives five thousand a year wants six thousand a year, and the man who owns eight or nine hundred thousand wants one hundred thousand more to make it a million, while the man who has his millions will want everything he can lay his hands on and then raise his voice against the poor devil who wants ten cents more a day.” But when asked “What does Labor want?” Gompers did not talk of money, or narrow personal advancement. This is what he said: “What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright.” Doesn’t sound like greed to me.

  • Douglas Rice

    Why not just write a column about George Will? And while you’re
    at it, one on Charles Krauthammer. He’s got it all figured out too.
    All we need to do is turn corporate Amerika lose on the world and
    “happy days are here again.” It reminds me of that old attorney
    joke. “Why do they bury attorneys 24 feet under the ground?
    Because down deep they’re really nice people.” Isn’t it ironic how
    Wall Street and the big banks have recovered so nicely from the
    recession, meanwhile folks on the bottom are struggling worse
    than before. But, don’t get me started…….

  • DFinMOzarks

    Once again, Donald has hit another one out of the ballpark. I’m sure glad to see you back old pal. I hope your health keeps you ‘in the game’. We need more logical thinking and your way with casting a paragraph laden with irony and humor is almost unique these days. I’ll give Jim Hightower a real close second.

    Everyone knows that many of the unions got into trouble with organized crime. But that was decades ago and those leaders are gone. The public needs to recognize that absent union influence, this country wouldn’t have had the middle class that folks like Krauthammer and Will are so intent on destroying. when they achieve their goals, there will be many million former FOX watchers wondering what happened to their jobs and their former middle class stature …since there won’t be any middle class any longer.

    Anyway, it’s nice to read a pundit who’s views recognize that reality. Stay healthy Don.