- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 30, 2010

Legend has it that during a brutal contract bar -gaining session, Harry Bennett, Hen-ry Ford’s enforcer, attempted to break the tension by passing around snapshots taken during a visit to Maxon Lodge, a gorgeous hideaway in the woods of northern Michigan.

Walter Reuther, architect of the United Auto Workers’ rise, looked over the photographs, tossed them on the table and said to Bennett: “Come the revolution, we’ll own that place.”

It was no idle threat. In 1967, flush with cash from a bulging membership, the UAW purchased the lodge and 1,000 acres on Black Lake.

And, as often happens with revolutionaries, the temptations of power were too strong to resist.

The UAW turned the lodge into a stunning and sprawling $33 million complex, adding another 200 acres and a $6 million golf course rated among the best 100 public courses in the nation.

Although it bills itself as an education center, it is actually a world-class resort, long a favorite spot for the union’s leaders to unwind. Reuther, who made the place his personal retreat, died in a plane crash on his way to Black Lake in 1970. His ashes are scattered on the grounds.

But today a “For Sale” sign hangs from the resort, which has required more than $25 million in subsidies from the union’s depleted treasury over the past five years. The UAW’s membership has fallen to roughly 430,000, from a peak of 1.5 million in 1979.

Its three major employers, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, have lost about half of their market share and have responded with serial factory closings and layoffs.

The union has been forced to accept contract concessions that have lowered the pay and benefits of its remaining members, and it no longer has the ability to stop the hearts of factory bosses with the threat of a labor strike.

So Black Lake is on the sale block, a symbol of how far the UAW has fallen. It’s by no means the only one.

Perhaps more tangible evidence of the union’s decline is the withdrawal last month from the Michigan gubernatorial race of Lt. Gov. John D. Cherry, a former UAW member and its choice to replace Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Mr. Cherry, who trailed badly in the early polls, cited an inability to raise funds for quitting the race. If the UAW, in its home state, can’t raise the scratch to get its candidate at least to the Democratic primary, that’s a solid indicator of waning union muscle. The two candidates most mentioned to replace Mr. Cherry on the ballot are Andy Dillon, the Democratic House speaker who outraged unions by advocating changes in public employee health care benefits, and Denise Ilitch, heir to the Little Caesar’s pizza empire and a one-time Republican donor.

It’s likely that for the fist time in a half-century, the UAW won’t have a horse in the Michigan gubernatorial race.

I stood on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008 with UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, who was absolutely giddy about the prospects of Barack Obama’s election. He was convinced a liberal, Democratic president would re-energize the labor movement with policies giving unions an advantage in organizing and contract negotiations.

However, the Democratic supermajority in the Senate has slipped away without passage of card-check elections, forced contract arbitration, repeal of free-trade pacts or much else from labor’s wish list.

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