In November 2009, Cooper sat down with the unions and laid out the city's problem. Representatives from the Ranking Officers Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Firefighters and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sat around the table in the conference room at Hamtramck City Hall, a three-story converted hospital building, as Cooper walked them through a Powerpoint presentation.Kind of amazing, huh? Ten years, all our good jobs shipped out, daily media coverage, and the cops in Hamtramck would rather shake down the citizenry for more cash than accept that this is the new normal: lower wages, crappy benefits, and an attitude of gratitude just for having a job. It's been a steep learning curve with plenty of denial built in.
The union workers have traditionally enjoyed solidly middle class wages. Under their existing union contract, police lieutenants will earn $78,000 this year, not including benefits. A patrol officer makes up to $58,000. A typical firefighter makes up to $55,000.
Cooper aimed to roll those numbers back. Though Detroit had yet to officially stop paying, he was already worried. He told the unions he wanted to cut benefits. If the unions didn't accept his proposals, he would have to start laying off workers.
But in Hamtramck, labor contracts bar such layoffs without the assent of the unions, and Cooper was swiftly rebuffed in his effort to gain it.
The unions were enraged. Just months earlier, the local branch of the International Association of Firefighters had finalized a new five-year contract with the city. The police, too, were bitter, especially given that they collect cash by issuing traffic tickets and seizing drug proceeds.
"We're the only department in the city that's actually generating revenue besides the income tax department," says patrolman Jon Bondra.
After the November meeting, the police unions rejected Cooper's request for concessions. Instead, they agreed to a creative plan to raise cash: They would implement a strict traffic safety program, with officers working overtime to write as many tickets as they could.
Traffic enforcement has proven to be a bonanza. In its first year, the program earned the city just over $800,000, according to estimates from Cooper and police officers.
Still facing a considerable shortfall, Cooper sought and gained concessions from the International Association of Firefighters, which, in January, agreed to forgo payment for 13 annual holidays. The union also agreed to increase its contribution to a pension fund in exchange for keeping a pay raise. And the union assented to keeping a single position vacant.
But given our terrible long-term employment outlook and shaky financial institutions, the enormous shortfalls our local, state, and federal governments are looking at (but not really facing), and rising food, energy, education, and health care costs, it would not take a genius to conclude that things are going to get worse for the average joe, not better. So adjust your future outlook accordingly. Personally, I think it's time the media stopped running those articles on how hard it is for a middle class family to get by, and start running more pieces on intergenerational and community cooperation. Doubling up, the backbone of family economies before the rise and fall of an American manufacturing economy, is going to be the trend. We are also going to have to learn to cooperate and get along with our neighbors, because we are going to need them. The best thing we could all do is to learn to live below our means as practice. In the short term, money saved can be used to pay down debt, set aside for emergencies, or used to purchase things that will allow us to be more self-sufficient. In the longer term, it will prepare us for the austerity ahead.
Most importantly, do not delude yourself that the government will be able to legislate or stimulate us back to prosperity or catch us gently on the way down. The good news is that America, at least, does not lack for resources. We only lack knowledge of how to use them more efficiently, sparingly, and cooperatively. These are the things we should be trying to learn again.