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DINE: Bing, Snyder a blast from a better past

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2012

It's nice, every now and then, to open the newspaper and find some good news. I realize I'm dating myself by admitting to getting news from a newspaper - not from a phone or computer or 24-hour cable network - but there are reasons to do so. Any good paper, like this one, has trained editors who read the copy for sense and grammar and check the facts, and who organize the presentation of stories to give readers context about what's happening in the world.

Getting back to the good news I mentioned, I'll date myself a second way. When I was growing up in New York as an ardent basketball fan, there was a wondrous guard on the NBA's Detroit Pistons, a lean and explosive player as quick as the blazes, possessing a great jump shot and the ability to drive by anyone, a stalwart defender and a consummate team player.

His name was Dave Bing, and now he's the mayor of Detroit. His city, as you might have heard, has been rocked by the recession, almost knocked out by the auto-industry crisis, and hit by a population loss that reduced the tax base. Like chief executives across America, he has public employees to pay - cops and firefighters, public nurses and garbage collectors and more - and, like his counterparts, his costs are largely labor costs.

But Mr. Bing, a native of Northeast Washington, a Democrat, the son of a domestic and a bricklayer, hasn't sought to make his city's employees the scapegoats for its problems, unlike so many elected officials elsewhere. He hasn't taken the easy path of creating divisions for political advantage. Instead he's looked for solutions.

Toward that end, he's working with the state's Republican governor, who has avoided the antagonistic approach embraced by his counterparts in surrounding states. Gov. Rick Snyder has actually tried to tackle the fiscal problems his state faces, not find someone to blame - kind of an old-fashioned approach, sort of like reading newspapers.

Mr. Snyder may fight with the unions that represent his employees, but he's not fighting to destroy them - and there's a big difference.

For contrast, look at Wisconsin, where the governor is embroiled in a recall election after stripping public employees of collective-bargaining rights. Or at Ohio, where voters dealt their governor a defeat by repealing his anti-labor measure. You start castigating workers and unions for a fiscal crisis they didn't cause, and that can't be fixed on their backs, and you waste a whole lot of time, energy and resources, while also dividing the public and inflaming tensions.

If, instead, politicians of different parties and outlooks work together and work with the unions as well, maybe the workers find a way to help out too.

Mr. Bing and Mr. Snyder are working on an agreement to address the city's debt. It's a tough measure, one that could lead to the appointment of a financial advisory board that would have authority to reduce or privatize some city services and to abridge contracts with public-sector unions.

Mr. Bing has insisted on concessions from city unions. The unions aren't thrilled. Mr. Snyder wants still more. Last week, a coalition of 30 unions representing city workers ratified contracts that include compromises, which Mr. Bing's chief of staff said reflects "how labor and management can work together in a fair and constructive way."

As a union leader put it, "We want to fix Detroit together."

Wow. What an old-fashioned approach. Not my way or the highway, but rather getting things done. Results, not drama; sort of like Dave Bing on the court.

Detroit and Michigan have problems, to be sure. But you know what? They've also got leaders. Mr. Snyder and Mr. Bing don't have all the answers. But they have the right approach. And, in the end, that makes a world of difference.

• Philip Dine, author of "State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence," is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.

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