Working Man's Blues: What Democrats and unions have done to Detroit

BY SEAN HIGGINS | JULY 21, 2013 AT 7:50 PM


Henry Ford raised the wages of his workers while cutting the price of his Model T, but his competitors at General Motors and Chrysler caught up as Ford aged. (AP File)TOPICS: MICHIGAN LABOR SPECIAL SERIES

Light years seem to have passed between Detroit's June 17, 2013,bankruptcy filing and the warning issued by the city's newly elected Mayor Coleman Young in his 1974 inaugural address.

"It is time to leave Detroit. Hit Eight Mile Road. And I don't give a damn if they are black or white, if they wear Superfly suits or blue uniforms with silver badges. Hit the road," he said.

To the first African-American mayor of a major U.S. city, equating the police with criminals was a way of telling his overwhelmingly black constituency that he understood their concerns about police brutality and civil rights.

To the city's white residents, it was a message that he placed those concerns above public safety and civil order. White flight, which began in the late '60s, accelerated.

In 1970, Detroit's population was 1.5 million. Forty-four percent was African-American, 54 percent was white. By 1990, the city's population had fallen to slightly more than 1 million, with African-Americans accounting for 78 percent and whites only 20 percent.

The population shift under Young cemented the Democratic Party's lock on the city. The labor organizer-turned-Democratic lawmaker would serve five terms, stepping down in 1993 at age 74 as his health worsened.

Under him, Detroit became a one-party big city machine. The last Republican mayor, Louis Miriani, was elected in 1957. Since 1970, only one Republican, Keith Butler, was elected to the city council.

As a result, Detroit exemplifies what happens when one political party - and it doesn't matter if it's the Democrats or the Republicans - keeps an iron grip on political power for decade after decade.

Young used the power to reward his base. The police force became 50 percent minority under his watch. Efforts to steer city business to a black-owned company resulted in two federal corruption probes in the early 1980s. Young himself was never charged.

Other corruption scandals followed. Young's police chief, William Hart, was convicted of embezzling $2.4 million in police funds in 1992.

Young's successor, Kwame Kilpatrick, resigned amid a "pay to play" and sex scandal in 2008. In March, he was convicted on 24 counts including racketeering and bribery.

Meanwhile, the city deteriorated. While Young focused on stopping police brutality, the city's homicide rate doubled from about 30 per 100,000 residents in 1970 to 60 per 100,000 by 1990.

Detroit is now the most dangerous big city in America, according to FBI statistics, with a crime rate five times the national average.

The city's economy crumbled, too. Unemployment was 7.2 percent in 1970 but soared to 19.7 percent by 1990. Today it is a staggering 18.6 percent, far above the national rate of 7.6 percent.

The city is nearly $20 billion in debt. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager in March. It may be decades before Detroit digs itself out of the financial pit into which it has fallen.

Young blamed white flight and the decline of the auto industry for the city's woes.

Otherwise, he said in his memoir, Detroit's ills were "basically the same problems that beset every American city."

But whites have fled from other places, and other big cities have seen wholesale declines in their economic engines, including Pittsburgh's steel mills and Houston's petroleum industry, without becoming permanent calamities that eroded residents' quality of life.

What sets Detroit apart is that for five decades, sadly, only two hands were on Detroit's steering wheel -- those of Big Labor and the Democratic Party -- and they drove the city into the ditch. To understand why this happened, it's necessary to go back to a spring day in 1941.

It was an ugly scene. United Auto Workers had organized a massive walkout at Ford Motor Co.'s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich. Fifty thousand workers marched off the job on April 2, 1941.

Enforcers for Ford Motor Co. pummel a UAW organizer at the "Battle of the Overpass" outside Ford's River Rouge plant in 1937; workers would stage a massive walk-out strike at the plant four years later.

Brutal fights broke out
between strikers and strikebreakers. Dozens were injured. A news photo of a union organizer being thrashed by a strikebreaker won a Pulitzer Prize for the Detroit News. The fact that most black employees sided with Ford gave the conflict a racial aspect, as well.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned Henry Ford he would not receive a single military contract if he did not meet with the UAW. Government contracts were crucial to the company's survival after the Great Depression.

On April 11, 1941, Ford agreed to allow a union election. The last holdout in the auto industry against Big Labor was defeated. By May, 58,000 workers voted to join the UAW, another 23,000 voted for the American Federation of Labor. Just 2,500 rejected unionization.

Only a few years before, such a result would have been unthinkable. Henry Ford's innovations extended far beyond car design and the assembly line. He had a brilliant, intuitive understanding of how markets work, especially labor.

At a time when 50 cents a day was considered a good salary, Ford announced in 1914 he would more than double his workers' pay to $5 for an eight-hour work day.

There was "no charity in any way involved," Ford asserted. It was "one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made."

The wage gave Ford his pick of the best workers and their absolute loyalty. Nobody wanted to lose a Ford job. By 1922, the wage was $6 a day. Other companies were forced to raise their wages to stay competitive.

Anybody could work at Ford, too. Ex-cons found their past was not a liability. Ford had no color barrier and even adapted assembly lines so that the handicapped could work.

At the same time, he radically slashed the price of his Model T cars from $850 in 1918 to $300 by 1922. What was once a decadent luxury was now affordable to anyone. Sales soared to 1.8 million a year.

Thousands of workers made Ford's massive River Rouge plant hum in its heyday; its tool and die shop is shown here in 1944. (Photo: Library of Congress).
Ford was a fiercely independent capitalist. He despised unions. His labor relations chief wasHarry Bennett, a former boxer, who commanded an army of 800 enforcers.

Union leaders failed repeatedly in trying to organize a Ford plant. But the Great Depression and Ford's own advancing age -- he was born in 1863 -- changed everything. Once an innovator, he grew cranky and obstinate as he reached his 70s, resisting calls to update his cars.

By the 1930s, Ford's sales trailed those of General Motors, so Ford cut wages and laid off workers. By 1940, Ford paid less than GM and Chrysler.

The UAW, having already unionized those two companies, stepped up its efforts to organize Ford. The company pushed back hard as the UAW filed complaint after complaint to Roosevelt's newly created National Labor Relations Board.

When the workers walked out at River Rouge, they sang a ditty, "Old Hank Ford, he ain't what he used to be."

When Ford saw the contract his son Edsel had negotiated with the UAW, he was enraged and threatened to close the company. He was told that if he did, the Roosevelt administration would take it over to ensure fulfillment of its wartime contracts. Ford had no choice. He signed. The UAW had won.

: Even Detroit's boom years had to end.