How Mayor Mike Duggan has been able to galvanize support from organized labor for his re-election bid against state Sen. Coleman Young II is one of the most underreported stories of the general election.
Just four years ago, the top guns of organized labor — such as the UAW, AFL-CIO, AFSCME Council 25, and others — flatly rejected Duggan, describing him as the wrong man for the working class people in Detroit.
At the time, most of the unions backed Duggan’s opponent Benny Napoleon as their candidate and former UAW president Bob King said then that Napoleon had always stood with labor.
What changed? Is the endorsement from those same unions now a classic example of politics making strange bedfellows?
In the past, these labor groups have made it their mission to battle it out with one city administration after another on issues such as privatization and collective bargaining, the holy grail of the labor movement. Of particular note is AFSCME Council 25, the largest union in Detroit government, which in the past has gone to blows with successive administrations over these issues.
“We’re proud to endorse Mayor Mike Duggan for a second term, because he’s the best choice to create jobs and good opportunities for all of our city’s working people,” said Lawrence A. Roehrig, president of AFSCME Council 25. “Over the next four years, the men and women of AFSCME look forward to partnering with the mayor and his team to build one city for all of us, and to ensure our city’s comeback benefits every Detroiter, in every neighborhood.”
Though Lawrence is standing behind Duggan, his immediate predecessor, Al Garrett, a longtime power broker in Detroit politics, said he would not have endorsed the mayor if he was still at the helm at AFSCME.
“I would not have necessarily been a proponent for the mayor because of the lack of improvement in our neighborhoods which translates to our members,” Garrett said. “Our current president is from Genesee County, and he may or may not see Detroit through the lens I see Detroit. I would not second guess his endorsement of Duggan but I would not have been there for the mayor.”
Garrett added, “I didn’t think I had to validate AFSCME by endorsing somebody who is likely to win but does not have our best interest. A lot of people are basically supporting Duggan because they want to have access.”
The former union president said he is supporting Young.
“When I vote, I will be voting for Young II. His father had a love for the people. I believe that he has that in him,” Garrett said. “Part of the endorsement process sometimes is that people are afraid to step out.”
Rick Blocker, president of the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO, said that union’s backing of the mayor is based on things he has done already and nothing else.
“I think clearly the economic boom in the construction industry was very paramount to our endorsement of the mayor,” Blocker said. “Also the mayor has been able to negotiate a raise in the police department, which is significant.”
Blocker said he sees some progress with the current administration.
“The lights are on, the grass is getting cut, video cameras are at some gas stations. Things are turning around but it had not completely turned for the neighborhoods,” Blocker said. “The last four years has been a lot better. The A. Philip Randolph trade school is about to fill to capacity which will provide more jobs for Detroiters and a lot of people feel comfortable that things are getting better for working people.”
That sentiment was also expressed by the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights when it endorsed Duggan in March.
“Mayor Duggan’s first term has been a model of good government, encouraging growth throughout the entire city and prioritizing good jobs for Detroit residents. He is working collaboratively with community leaders, the city council, labor unions and residents to rebuild the city together. We look forward to working with him for another term,” said Mike Jackson, the group’s executive secretary-treasurer.
The endorsement came a month after the group announced it was participating in Duggan’s Detroit Skilled Trades Employment program to provide opportunities for city residents to learn skilled trades like carpentry. At least 25 percent of all new MRCC apprentices over the next decade are expected to be Detroit residents, the group estimated.
The support the mayor is receiving from the unions hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Young campaign.
“I'm baffled. Duggan is anti-union,” said Young campaign manager Adolph Mongo. “How can the UAW, AFL-CIO and AFSCME support somebody who screws up their rank and file? You would think with the high poverty rate in the city, these unions would be standing up for somebody.”
Mongo said the endorsement by the carpenters and millwright group “shows that labor is dead. ... This is not the labor that helped the black middle class. This is not my grandfather’s labor.”
For Duggan, the significance of labor’s support is not lost on him as the establishment candidate, who unions would naturally be against.
“As much as I appreciate the support of the Carpenters for my re-election, I’m even more grateful for all they’re doing to help Detroit residents directly benefit from all the construction in the city,” the mayor said after receiving the union’s support.
The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.