When offered an opportunity today to do the right thing, to show union leaders and their members that “management” was willing to take a big hit too, a majority of Detroit City Council said, “No thanks.”
A big part of leadership is about symbols and the need to lead by example. That council President Pro-Tem Gary Brown and member Joann Watson are the only two council members of eight present to vote to cut their budgets by 30 percent, end the use of city-owned cars, relinquish city-paid mobile phones and agree to a 70-30 split on city-provided health care in response to the city’s deepening financial crisis tells you just how serious the we-can-do-it-ourselves-in-Detroit mantra really is. This from a council that consumes a higher percentage of the city’s budget than almost all of its peers in major American cities. This from a council that wants to remind the city’s unions how much they’ve already sacrificed.
Memo to council: What matters now in the bid to wrest 10 percent pay cuts, a 70-30 cost sharing on health care and the green light to lay off 1,000 city employees is not what you did back in the day; it’s what you’re willing to do now. That’s how good leadership works, as a cruise through the archives of Ford Motor Co. press releases circa March 2009 or so would attest: never ask the people who work for you to do a task you’re not willing to do yourself. Optics matter; to win painful cuts from union leaders wholly unaccustomed to bargaining under duress and bargaining real, politically unpalatable cuts, management must show it is willing to exceed the measure it demands of others. It’s hard and it’s brutal, but so is the existential financial crisis bearing down on the city.
As much as his colleagues — and Mayor Dave Bing — may not like Gary Brown’s plainspoken style and as much as the same people may think he’s using the crisis to run a shadow campaign to become the next mayor, the former Detroit police officer is asking the right questions and offering the most sensible solutions to a metastasizing problem likely to culminate in either a state-appointed emergency manager or a federal Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing. The first step toward averting either is a willingness by council to shoulder fully the burden of leadership in tough time and do more than they’re asking from the city’s 48 unions. Council failed.