Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Significant Funeral

I have never liked labor unions.

I say this with some trepidation, because in Windsor, this is not a popular position.

I don't dislike union members. And I certainly don't want to pick any fights. Most of the decent people I know in Windsor are union people.

In short simple terms, I personally believe unions have bloated the costs of products unionized laborers produce. They limit and constrain the ability of a corporation to respond to ever changing global economic conditions. They reduce the ability to reward those who work extra hard, while they protect those whose skills or work ethic are weaker.

It is unquestionable that the former big three Automakers from Detroit are suffering greatly in part because of the tremendous Wages and benefits the United Auto Workers and Canadian Auto Workers unions have negotiated with General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.

The response that I would get from my union member friends is that the union built Windsor. Windsor would not be the city is today without the union.

My response has always been that while that is true, it would be interesting to have seen how Windsor would have prospered without unionized labor. What niche's would have evolved. What industries? What would the standard of living have grown into Windsor? Because our dependence on unionized automobile manufacturing jobs is not currently boding a bright and hopeful future for the city of Roses on the Detroit river.

But yesterday, I changed my perspective a bit.

Yesterday, I accompanied Darlene to her Cousin Jay's funeral.

It was very sad to lose Jay, who is a small business owner and only one year older than me. I had only met Jay a couple of times, but each time I was always impressed with his positive and enjoyable personality. The sudden illness and death of such a strong and able man leave me to ponder how delicate we all really are.

As Jay was a small business owner, I would never have expected what I saw at that funeral.

When we arrived at the funeral home, the lot was filled with bikes. Choppers not unlike those you see on TV made by Orange County Choppers. "Wow, Jay was a biker?". I asked Darlene.

When we entered, I not only saw bikers, but I also saw a room full of CAW jackets and caps. And I bumped into one of the Union Liaison's at my own company.

"How did you know Jay?" asked Laurie.

"He is Darlene's cousin", I stated. "And you?"

"Why through the Union of course", replied Laurie as if of course I should have known this.

The place was packed, and more walls were opened up and more seats brought in to accommodate the ever growing number of attendees to Jays funeral.

When people had settled and found their places, with Jay's now-closed casket at the front of the room, a coordinator for the funeral home stepped up to the Microphone and announced the first person to speak would be Ken Lewenza, the newly elected national president of the Canadian Auto Workers union.

Now be there no doubt that Mr. Lewenza is a very skilled politician. As fine a speaker as you will find. And as well respected a member of the community as there is in Windsor.

For thirty minutes he stood before that massive assembly , speaking highly of Jay's achievements in various bargaining sessions with the various plants he had worked in, and how after even starting his own small sign business, he still came back to sit at the bargaining table to lead Union negotiations with a new parts plant in town. And he spoke of Jay's great positive attitude declaring everything was fine and that life was good, even after being diagnosed with this his suddenly terminal cancer.

At first I was offended by Mr. Lewenza's apparent hijacking of Jay's service to stand upon his soap box as though it were a union rally. But then as I listened to him speak of Jay, he having known Jay for some time on a personal level, and stating his desire that if he were able, he would clone a million Jays because of how invaluable his contributions were to the Union, to the city, and to his family and friends.

Another cousin of Darlene's was there. Mike is a very prominent Windsor business man, owning a large paving company, and a building developer. He employs hundreds of people in the city of Windsor. And as Mr. Lewenza spoke, I found myself wondering how Mike, an entrepreneur who understands the importance of cost containments as they pertain to the bottom line of a business plan, just to see his reaction. Mike sat there listening. And at certain points he was appreciative. Appreciative of the recognition his cousin was receiving from the highest leader in the land of the Canadian Auto Workers Union.

And at that moment, like the Grinch whose heart grew three inches on Christmas morning, I realized that I was wrong.

Regardless of your political affiliation, or idealisms, your points of view on economic controls, or your political affiliation, at the end of Mr. Lewenza's speech you had to know that Jay would have been very honored to have heard such high praise and distinction from a man he did respect deeply. And to receive such respect from a group he worked so hard for throughout his life.

If the opportunity would have made itself available, I would have sought Mr. Lewenza out to tell him thank you.

I still don't like unions. But now, having returned to Windsor almost nine years ago now, I can say that I do have an appreciation for the level of commitment those who belong to the brotherhood feel. I still believe that this union will one day be the end of manufacturing employment in Windsor – and in Detroit – as they will likely scare away any new manufacturers from considering these areas to build plants and provide good wages.

But I no longer see unions in the belittling manner that I previously did. I better understand the good they have done in the community, the good intentions I believe they strived to realize, and their commitment to grow stronger for what they believe is the good of the community.

But whether it is- in the long run – good for the community remains to be seen. And Windsor may be seeing it sooner than we think.

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