Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wayne Co. fights fear of unions


When companies are scouting possible site locations for a new plant or call center in the U.S., Michigan and metro Detroit don't usually even make the short list of semifinalists.

Taxation rates can be an issue here; ditto for energy costs. But the biggest deterrent, by far, is labor climate.

It's fear of unionization. It's high labor costs, real or perceived, compared with other states and cities.

So imagine the surprise last week when a group of national site selection consultants from places such as Phoenix, Kansas City and Chicago came to Detroit to hear a pitch about why they should steer clients to Wayne County -- and found that their agenda included a meeting with leaders of organized labor.

That's right. Bob King, president of the UAW; Bill Black, executive director of Teamsters Joint Council No. 43, and officials of the Carpenters union and the Building and Construction Trades Council were part of the team selling Wayne County as a swell place to do business.

Paige Webster, of Foote Consulting Group in Phoenix, has been crisscrossing the country for a decade helping clients choose the best places for new plants or expansions.

Had he ever, in all his travels, met with labor union chiefs?

"No. Never," he told me.

"They kind of hit the beast head-on," said Ann Harts, CEO of the HartsGroup and a former economic development professional in Kansas.

"I was impressed with the business mind-set," she added. "We had very frank, healthy discussions with the labor group about perceptions and misperceptions. Bob King talked about adding value, how the union can help."

That was the point of including labor leaders along with corporate CEOs in the 2 1/2 -day visit, said Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano. "Instead of dealing with the devil-with-horns perception of labor," he said, the site selection consultants had personal give-and-take with the union officials.

"We really have to demonstrate that we are providing the best labor, that the UAW is committed to productivity and to quality, to flexibility," said King, who plans to accompany Ficano later this month on an investment mission to Italy, which will include visits to facilities of Chrysler's alliance partner Fiat.

Webster said he was impressed with the diversity of Wayne County's economy, after seeing the new General Electric tech center in Visteon Village, meeting with a life-science CEO and visiting a movie set. "We got a pretty unvarnished look," he said, noting that a film executive was very frank about the importance of film tax credits to keeping that activity in Michigan. "They follow the dollars."

Hats off to Ficano and his economic team for dealing head-on with Wayne County's historical baggage.

If Michigan and Detroit are perceived as having a negative labor climate, do something about it. Don't try to sweep it under the rug.

There's no political appetite now for a battle to make Michigan a right-to-work state. The reality is that unionization rates are much lower in the state than they used to be, and, in many sectors, wage rates are now lower than the national average.

More straight talk, and less posturing and political sniping, might produce more reactions like this one from Harts, the site consultant from Kansas City: "Everyone we saw around the table was working to create economic diversity and jobs for Wayne County."

And ideally, the clients of those site selectors might not be so quick to cross Michigan and metro Detroit off their short lists.

Contact TOM WALSH: 313-223-4430 or twalsh@freepress.com

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