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.

For the UAW, the future looks particularly bleak. Manufacturing jobs continue to shrink. New factories are mostly locating in the right-to-work South, bypassing Michigan, Pennsylvania and other states where union influence is still disproportionate to its representation of the work force.

Even in Michigan, the bluest of blue-collar states, union membership has dropped well below 20 percent, and there’s a growing drumbeat to get a right-to-work proposal on the ballot as a means of improving the state’s economic competitiveness.

In opinion polls, the union shares blame about equally with corporate mismanagement for the collapse of the automobile industry. Residents who never enjoyed UAW-style wages and benefits are openly resentful that the union’s stubborn refusal to give back until it was too late put Michigan’s economy in a tailspin.

In fact, one of the reasons offered for the lack of voter enthusiasm for Mr. Cherry is his strong ties to the UAW. A top political operative for another union told me that labor is hesitant to back any candidate this fall, worried its support will be the kiss of death in a state weary of labor politics.

Someone else will soon own Black Lake - if the union can unload it; the market isn’t exactly hot for northern Michigan resorts.

Developers have suggested it could best be reworked as an upscale boarding school.

We’ll know the revolution has truly come and gone when the sons and daughters of wealthy bankers, merchants and industrialists explore the woods fertilized by Walter Reuther’s ashes.

Nolan Finley is editorial page editor of the Detroit News.

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