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Coleman Young

Coleman Alexander Young (1918-1997) served as mayor of Detroit, Michigan from 1974 to 1994.

Young was born in 1918 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His family moved to Detroit in 1923, where he graduated from Eastern High School. He worked for Ford Motor Company, from which he was shortly blacklisted for involvement in labor and civil rights activism. He later worked for the United States Postal Service. During the second World War, he served in the 477th Medium-Bomber Group (Tuskegee Airmen) of the U. S. Army Air Corps as a bombardier and navigator.

Young's involvement in progressive and dissident organizations including The Progressive Party, the AFL-CIO, and The National Negro Labor Council made him powerful enemies, including the FBI and HUAC, where he refused to testify. He protested segregation in the Army, racial discrimination in the UAW. In 1948 Young supported Progressive Party candidate Henry A. Wallace. He later called that a major mistake.

In 1960, he was elected as a delegate to draft Michigan's State Constitution. In 1964 he was elected to the Michigan State Senate, where his most significant legislation was a law requiring arbitration in disputes between public sector unions and municipalities. In 1973, Young narrowly defeated Police Commissioner John F. Nichols (who would later become Oakland County Sheriff) to become Detroit's first African American mayor. He won the four subsequent terms by very wide margins.

His administration was controversial, and he found himself the subject of continued FBI scrutiny amid allegations of contract kickbacks. He was criticized for his confrontational style toward suburban interests (he proudly called himself a "badass," and once called a goveror of Michigan a "motherfucker") and the apparent diversion of city resources to downtown Detroit from other neighborhoods.

Young was a tireless advocate for federal funding for Detroit construction projects, and his administration saw the completion of the Renaissance Center, Detroit People Mover, Joe Louis Arena and several other Detroit landmarks. He also negotiated with General Motors to build its new "Poletown" plant at the site of the former Dodge Main plant. This was very controversial, as the new plant was larger than the old one and the deal involved many evictions via eminent domain.

Similar to John Lindsay in New York, a major problem Young had as mayor was the growing strength of public sector unions. Since unions have nothing to lose by requesting arbitration, and only money, shorter hours, and benefits to gain, they always did request arbitration, and always won at least half of what they were asking for. Eventually, as mayor of Detroit, powerless in negotiations with Detroit unions, Coleman Young came to rue the day he sponsored his arbitration bill. "Never have the anti-democratic impulses found so fecund a method of undermining democracy at all levels of government -- state, federal, and local -- as the method implicit in public sector bargaining and arbitration. Like Pilate, all duly elected and appointed public officials in public sector bargaining communities can wash their hands of responsibility for the stupendous waste of public resources that the system entails. They can even put on a show of resisting union demands now and then, knowing that private arbitrators, who make a living by pleasing unions, will grant what the politicians denied.

"We know that compulsory arbitration has been a failure. Slowly, inexorably, compulsory arbitration destroys sensible fiscal management. Arbitration awards have caused more damage to the public service in Detroit than the strikes they were designed to prevent." [1]

By the middle 1970s Detroit, far from being the most expensive city, would have the highest per employee labor costs in the nation.

CityLabor Costs per EmployeeEmployees per1000 PopulationLabor Costs perCapitaLabor Costs as a % of personal income
New York City$19,54345.588919.9%

Reproduced from Table 5.3 in Political Crisis/Fiscal Crisis. Data are originally from US Bureau of Census, City Government Finances 1974-1975.
Table 4.
Municipal Labor Costs in Twelve Largest U.S. Cities in 1975

The inability of Coleman Young to maintain fiscal stability and fulfill the desires of unions came to a head in 1978. After weeks of negotiations, Coleman Young and the police and firefighters unions went to arbitration. In Michigan arbitration cases were decided by one person. Detroit, at this time, already teetering on the edge, lost the case. It would have to pay $80 million per year in extra salaries and benefits that it simply did not have. Detroit at this time had been seeing a drop in crime, but to pay the extra salaries Coleman Young was forced to lay police officers off. The police force was reduced from 5,400 officers to 4,000. Crime rates increased by 15.2% alone in 1980. By the middle 1980s Detroit would have the worst crime in the nation, three times higher per capita than the nation's nine other largest cities. To pay for this enormous burden, Coleman Young also had to increase already high income taxes, implement a commuter tax, and cut back on other services. Parks were virtually abandoned, school funding decreased, and maintenance deferred on things like street lights and traffic lights. This, combined with a large reduction in aid under Ronald Reagan, accelerated again the city's freefall. Any seedlings of recovery were killed.

By the late 1980s Detroit would be called "our first third world city." It had the poverty, the politics of liberation from colonial rule, and dictatorial leader. People spoke of 1973 as Detroit's year of independence.


Young needlessly offended people and made his mistakes, but the legacy of the 1967 riots and changes in Detroit's economy would have been too much for any mayor to overcome. Young tried to bring economic growth to Detroit, but he was hampered by the refusal of the State of Michigan to assist him for schools or police.