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.

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Donald Kaul

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

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