Bankole: Detroit labor boss stepping down

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

For two decades, Al Garrett reigned as president of the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees which has 60,000 members across the state. In that role, he has had a front-row seat on the major political decisions in Detroit because its members are the largest group in city government where contract talks are not up till 2018.

But as Garrett, 66, officially steps down on Nov. 30, as president of AFSCME Council 25 since taking the helm in 1998 and after four decades with the union, he says labor has lost influence due to lack of strategy. He cited right-to-work which became law in 2013 banning collection of union dues as a condition for employment in the public sector.

“We were unable to get our act together. While there is this idea of labor, labor is not monolithic so you’ve got different interests, different priorities and different concerns,” Garrett said. “We weren’t able to mesh them in such a way that we can do effective launch of the ballot initiative we had. We went first in trying to enshrine collective bargaining into the (state) constitution. With our failure, it emboldened the Republicans to actually go for right to work.”

In 2012, the United Auto Workers joined by several unions led a failed statewide ballot initiative called “Protect our Jobs” to amend the state constitution to include collective bargaining for public and private sector workers.

Garrett said labor also failed to tell a compelling story to defeat the Republican-led right-to-work initiative that was a counter punch to the ballot proposal to make collective bargaining a state law.

“We should have told a different story. Frankly we should have demonstrated that collective bargaining was already in the constitution for some segments of public workers specifically the state troopers,” Garrett said.

“We should have told the story in terms of why we are going forward in terms of all the intrusions state government has started doing regarding our bargaining process. I’ve been here 40 years. I’ve never had the state come in and say this contract has to have a certain provision. We didn’t come together effectively to do that.”

Garrett says the state’s labor unions are now splintered.

“The other thing that has taken place is the shift from manufacturing unions to service unions and one not been willing to relinquish the charge. In the 1960s and the 1970s there was a clear big dog especially in Michigan and that was the UAW,” Garrett explained.

“Then in the 1980s and 1990s, other unions grew up and they wanted to call in what the mission was. So that infighting became more and more, and the direction became less focus.”

He said two initiatives on the Nov. 8 ballot — Proposal A and Proposal B, which are designed to create a community benefits agreement (CBA) requiring developers who get city assistance and aid with new investment and development opportunities to provide a myriad of benefits including jobs in the community — offer the latest examples of the division in labor.

AFSCME Council 25 is in favor of Proposal A because it creates a legally binding CBA with developers.

But the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters whose members are in the building and trade industry are opposed to the proposal because they contend creating a legal covenant with developers would drive jobs away since some developers may not want to be subjected to potential court action.

Instead the carpenters are in favor of Proposal B which will allow the city to make the ultimate decision on a CBA with advice of community advisory groups without necessarily creating the legal mechanism that the other proposal will require.

Aside from dealing with the visible chasms that exist among labor groups based on their varying interests and concerns, as a highlight of his union career, Garrett said Detroit’s bankruptcy was the most challenging.

“Public workers lost in the bankruptcy fight,” Garrett said.

The bankruptcy that Garrett opposed, according to Edward McNeil, a special assistant to Garrett, is one of many reasons his departure will leave big shoes to fill.

“He worked to ensure that employees, pensions, health care and seniority are respected. He has the finesse to go into a room even with those who do not agree with him and they later adjust their opinions of him after the meeting ends,” McNeil said.

Rory Gamble, president of UAW Region 1A in Detroit, said Garrett’s tenure underscores the need for more African-American leadership in labor.

“Al is a true trade unionist and he fought for the black community and pushed for progress of minority leadership in the labor movement. What he has done will resonate after his retirement,” Gamble said.

Michael Aaron, business manager of Laborers’ Local 1191, part of the Laborers International Union of North America, said Garrett was a mentor and kingmaker.

“He showed me the ropes in this labor business. His advice was always to educate yourself on the issue, be strong and don’t waiver on your constituency,” Aaron said.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said Garrett has fought for the issues that matter to Michigan.

“Al is an icon in the labor movement and has been on the front lines fighting everyday for fair wages, safe working conditions and the rights of workers to collectively bargain,” Stabenow said. “He is a passionate leader and advocate for the city of Detroit and for good paying jobs. ”

Larry Roehrig, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME Council 25, will take over as president.

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910AM weekdays at noon. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.