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Published: Wednesday, 3/9/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Not-so-solid unions

Ohio's public-sector unions lost a battle last week when the state Senate approved a bill to curtail their collective bargaining rights. The war continues, however, as was made evident by protesters inside and outside Gov. John Kasich's first State of the State address on Tuesday. But is the "solidarity and common cause" between public-sector unions and their private-sector brethren as strong as union leaders say?

Despite the automobile industry's reduced tire track, Toledo remains a strong union town. Among the many unions represented here, few can match the power and reach of the United Auto Workers. So The Blade decided to see whether the claim of union solidarity is reflected in the choice of cars driven by unionized teachers, police, firefighters, and other city workers.

People didn't need The Blade to count the number of foreign nameplates in parking lots used by the unionized public employees. But the newspaper did count them, and the resulting picture is there for everyone to see. In the seven parking lots examined -- six at schools and one downtown lot frequented by police and city workers -- between 40 percent and 60 percent of vehicles were not made by union labor.

This isn't the first time that people who depend on taxpayer money -- much of which comes from union households -- have been taken to task for driving foreign-made vehicles. William Dennler, the former executive director of the Toledo Zoo, and former zoo Chief Operating Officer Robert Harden drove leased Volvos six years ago, reversing direction only when it was pointed out that the zoo receives millions of dollars each year from levies on the property taxes of county residents, many of whom are union workers in the automobile industry.

More recently, Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken, a retired UAW official, felt the heat after he leased an Acura TL for his wife. The vehicle, made in Ohio but with nonunion labor, was quickly returned to the dealership.

What The Blade survey found was that a significant number of people whose wages are paid by the public don't support the U.S. auto industry. That's their right. True or not, the perception has been that foreign cars are a better value for the money. People have the freedom to buy whatever they want. They shouldn't be bullied into buying something they perceive as a lesser value.

But public workers can't have it both ways. They can't assume that unionized automobile, steel, and other workers will be sympathetic to their cause as long as there are foreign vehicles in their driveways.

Toledo Federation of Teachers President Francine Lawrence says she encourages her members to drive union-made vehicles. That's not enough.

There's a sign at the UAW Local 12 hall on Ashland Avenue that says: "Autos not assembled by the UAW are not welcome in this lot." If public union members want private union support, there shouldn't be foreign or nonunion-made vehicles in their parking lots six months from now.

This isn't our statement, we don't necessarily even agree with it, but in Toledo, when you drive a foreign car you are saying something to your neighbors. You're saying you don't care about union solidarity or maintaining the region's middle class.

There's no reason to believe that public workers have a higher rate of foreign-car ownership than the general public, but you'd expect them to do better than the population as a whole supporting union-made products. Instead, The Blade's survey suggests that in pro-union Toledo, there is not a whole lot of solidarity.



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