Legacy benefits of high-wage jobs build quality colleges, help afflicted

Being a part of America's labor movement, it's easy to find ourselves focusing on America's problems and challenges.

Our economy no longer rewards the hard work of working families. Our health care system is failing and taking down a sizable chunk of American industry along with it, while free trade agreements are robbing us of good-paying jobs. Our foreign policy has us ensnared in an unwinnable war with no end in sight.

Here in Michigan, it's especially easy to focus on the negative, since the domestic auto industry is in the midst of a downturn.

Legacy costs – and benefits
Some people bemoan the so-called "legacy costs" that are alleged to be causing so much financial hardship for the Big Three automakers. However, this claim ignores the positive legacy of decades of success at America's auto companies.

Michigan has top-quality public colleges and universities, paid for by the tax dollars generated by a high-wage, high-value-added economy. We've got a skilled, highly productive workforce. We've got the intellectual capability, roads, power plants and supply chain needed to support an advanced industrial economy.

The problems we encounter as a state and a nation aren't going away this holiday season – but it's not a bad time to focus on what's right with America.

Give thanks for freedom
First, let's give thanks for our basic freedom as Americans. Despite attempts by powerful forces to shut down the voices of ordinary people, we remain free to speak our minds, and free to join together to improve our workplaces and communities.

This equates to the opportunity, if we seize it, to become a leader in 21st-century transportation by building cleaner and greener vehicles and working together to establish workable mass transportation in southeastern Michigan.

And, no catalog of America's strengths is complete without recognizing the extraordinary generosity of America's people. Americans donated more than $2.2 billion to aid victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, over $1.8 billion following the Asian tsunami in 2003 and more than $3.3 billion to help victims of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005.

Generosity continues
The spirit of giving extends far beyond donating funds to high-profile relief efforts. Every union member or member of the community who helps with building a wheelchair ramp, every volunteer from a church, synagogue or mosque who works at a homeless shelter, every company that sponsors an employee to participate in an after-school tutoring program is making a dramatic difference in someone's life.

Even with all the trouble of the auto industry, and the dislocation for workers and families that goes along with it, let's give thanks for those who are still working. And, those of us who are fortunate enough to have jobs and good wages have a responsibility to remember those who are less fortunate.

There are legions of non-profit organizations in southeastern Michigan that work on a daily basis to lend a helping hand. Some that stand out are the United Way of Southeastern Michigan, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, FocusHope, the Salvation Army and the Old Newsboys' Goodfellows Fund among others.

Individuals make difference
But what doesn't stand out is the individual who quietly makes a donation, whether it is monetary, food, clothing, shelter or support that is so essential to helping other human beings during these difficult economic times. The generosity of these folks is overwhelming.

There is another group that is not looking for accolades and that is those who have dedicated their life to reaching out and giving a helping hand to those in need. They silently go about ensuring that the generosity of those who give is not misplaced. They are always there willing and able to serve and they add so much value to our community.

The holiday season, of course, is a special time for giving. But the spirit of caring lasts all year -- it brings our community together and it unites labor and management, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative.

In our own way, each of us can contribute -- and when we do, we stand up for what's best about America.

About the author:

Ron Gettelfinger is president of the United Auto Workers. This article first appeared in the Detroit News' Labor Voices on December 1, 2006. The views expressed by contributors to At Issue do not necessarily reflect the positions of the UAW.