Rev. Malik Shabazz of Detroit rallies Detroit residents against Mayor Dave Bing, as demonstrators display signs declaring "Hands off Detroit's Pension and Water" and "Fire Dave Bing & Zajac," March 10. (Regina H. Boone/AP)

Public-sector unions are on the defensive in this historic stronghold of organized labor. With the city mired in fiscal distress for years, workers have been asked to give and give again.

Now, Mayor Dave Bing (D) wants city employees to pay significantly more for health care and pensions. What the unions do not give, he warned, the government will take by using a new state law allowing a state-appointed fiscal manager to void their collective bargaining agreements.

“It’s that simple,” Bing said in his recent budget address.

Bold action by Republican governors to rein in government spending and labor power by
curtailing collective-bargaining rights have been met with raucous, if ultimately unsuccessful, protests from union leaders and their allies in places including Wisconsin and Ohio.

But Bing’s move to extract new concessions from Detroit’s 12,000 municipal workers has been met with no such outpouring. “I don’t know that there is a whole lot to stop him,” said Roger Rice, a city mechanic for the past 37 years.

The absence of any large protest highlights the conundrum facing labor and its progressive allies as more states, cities and towns run by their putative Democratic allies are confronted with staggering debt and budget problems. For many of them, the most viable solution is to demand more from labor unions that are among their strongest political supporters.

Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive activist group, pointed out that there were major differences between political leaders seeking concessions and those seeking to weaken unions. Still, he added, “Democratic leaders shouldn’t be using the threat of laws put there by Republicans to intimidate workers.”

As much as they abhor the budgetary solutions offered by many Republican governors, union leaders are finding that the solutions offered by hard-pressed Democratic leaders are often similar in substance, if not in tone.

“Unions are simply making the best of a bad situation,” said Taylor E. Dark III, a professor at California State University at Los Angeles who studies the relationship between organized labor and Democratic politicians. “Public employee unions are aware that they need to accept some pain now, and they would rather control how that pain is inflicted, as opposed to the loss of control that occurs under Republican governance.”

In New York and California, Democratic governors have not attacked collective bargaining, but they have also demanded major concessions from workers to help close yawning budget deficits.

In Wisconsin and Ohio, new Republican governors have significantly curtailed or eliminated collective-bargaining rights for public employees, moves they said were made to give themselves as well as local leaders a freer hand to make badly needed cuts.

Michigan’s new governor, Rick Snyder (R), signed legislation last month empowering his appointed emergency financial managers to void municipal union contracts in distressed municipalities across the state.

Former D.C. school board president and city administrator Robert Bobb, now the state-appointed fiscal manager overseeing
Detroit’s deficit-ridden public schools, has hinted at doing away with seniority rights, allowing managers to choose which teachers are laid off or reassigned.

In financially strapped Benton Harbor, Mich., the state-appointed financial manager stripped control from city officials, meaning boards, commissions and authorities cannot act without his explicit approval.

Bing is using the new law as a potent trump card as he attempts to squeeze badly needed savings from once-powerful labor unions.

“For much of the 20th century, Detroit was the epicenter of labor power in America,” said Harley Shaiken, a University of California at Berkeley professor who focuses on labor issues. “Many people have taken labor attitudes of the 1950s and superimposed them on 2011. But unions know they are dealing in a profoundly new reality. You have seen unions make very painful concessions. No one is denying fiscal reality.”

Decades ago, when Detroit earned the proud moniker Motor City, it was home to a thriving
and decidedly blue-collar middle class built largely by the clout of organized labor. Detroit is now renowned as a national symbol of urban dysfunction, and as Bing tries desperately to change that reputation, he often finds himself at odds with the city’s labor unions.

Bing has overseen modest reductions in the city’s homicide and unemployment rates, but he faces a monumental task as he works to bring huge budget deficits under control in a city that lost 25 percent of its population in the past decade.

Even as the city is shrinking, Bing calls the current state of city services unacceptable. And he says they are not going to improve unless he can reduce the city’s personnel costs, which are overwhelming the budget. This year, the city paid $200 million in pension benefits, which Bing said was $25 million more than the city paid for fire department and ambulance services last year.

“The old days, when getting a good city job meant that you put in your 20 years with the expectation that city government could take care of you for the next 40, is no longer a realistic or viable option,” Bing said.

Since Bing, a former Detroit Pistons basketball star who was in business before entering politics, took office less than two years ago, he has reduced the city’s workforce by 1,800. Meanwhile, workers have absorbed wage cuts and increased benefit costs.

Now he wants workers to take on an additional 20 percent of their health insurance premiums. He also wants them to take smaller pensions, and to eliminate defined-benefit pensions for all new employees.

Bing said he has no choice. “If we do nothing, by 2015, fringe benefits are on pace to consume half of our entire general-fund revenue,” he said. “That is not sustainable. We can’t afford benefit packages so rich.”

Still, the constant concessions have left city workers demoralized but seemingly without any ability to fight. “What I can’t understand is you have people making six figures or more talking about municipal workers, who make $25,000 to $50,000 a year, and what they’re getting,” said Harvey Pierce, a 911 operator. “It is becoming class war. And the middle class is losing.”

City government veterans recall a time when they could apply for a job one day and start work — with decent pay and good benefits — the very next day.

That’s how it was for Saundra Williams, who went to work for the city as a typist in the health department in 1968. She retired as a 911 operator in 1998 at age 48, and the city is obligated to pay her $24,000 a year for life.

“It’s great,” said Williams, who now works for the Michigan AFL-CIO. “But it also is not a lot to live on.”

But now Detroit’s employees are bracing for serious give-backs, even after making significant concessions in recent years.

Robert Bonds, who collects money from city parking meters, said he has two part-time jobs to make ends meet. He did not expect his job to be lucrative, he said, but he expected it to be secure and to provide good benefits.

“Whoever it was who began perpetuating this image that public workers are lazy and make too much, they are good at what they do. Because that is what people think,” Bonds said.

Albert Garrett, president of
AFSCME Council 25, which represents about 3,200 city workers, acknowledged that workers are losing patience. Already, nonessential workers are furloughed one day out of 10. Meanwhile, entry-level office workers earn just $17,000 a year. Similar work paid $7,000 a year in 1970, he said.

“I don’t know how long they can get concessions from us without there being some kind of repercussions,” Garrett said. “At some point, the benefit to workers is not just having a job. That job has to help your quality of life.”