The summer between my junior and senior years in college, I was a second shift supervisor at a GM foundry in Saginaw. A large part of my job involved finding Smiley. I don’t remember his real name. (Smiley was one of those ironic nicknames; his facial expression was pretty much non-existent.) He was old, like everybody else I supervised — you know, over 30. He had thick, tear-drop glasses perched over a bushy, fu manchu mustache and stringy hair that straggled out from under a hard-hat liner (as was the foundry style, which made workers look like mutant World War I fighter pilots). Smiley struck me as a rejected Doobie Brother.
At the beginning of a shift, Smiley would punch in and then typically disappear. To be honest, if I didn’t need Smiley I wouldn’t necessarily look for him. After I set up my lines in the finishing department (it didn’t take long; the workers knew much more than I did), I’d go off to find bins of important castings that the first-shift supervisor had hidden from me (so his production numbers would look better than mine — that’s another story.)
The finishing department was at the end of the foundry where the castings were heat treated, cleaned and shipped. It was a huge warren of aisles and machinery populated by randomly stacked bins filled with assortments of metal castings. It was a great place to hide. So usually it was only by chance that I’d find Smiley — behind a door, crouched in a dark corner, whatever. I’d send him back to his job, and he’d dutifully work the rest of the shift. That’s how the game was played. Nothing I could do to change the rules; the union protected him.
All that to say, 30 or 40 years ago, I would agree: It was appropriate to be wary of a system that allowed a 35 year-old man to get paid a living wage to play hide and seek. But today, the foundry is long gone, and there are a lot less Smileys, and also a lot, lot less living wage jobs. For issues like prevailing wage laws, the same drumbeat to crush organized labor seems disproportionate and counterproductive. It’s 2015 and time to refocus on laws that are going to help Michigan on the whole.