Odd Couples Join To Preserve Jobs

May 1, 2002
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It is not yet time to break out the champagne but movement of a bill to phase out mandatory source provisions for the Federal Prison Industries must be heralded as the full U.S. Congress finally receives it from committee.

U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, deserves full salute for his tenacious work, year after frustrating year, in seeing the day.

The House Judiciary Committee last week sent to the full House a bill to phase out the monopoly on government contracts over a five-year period. The bill also will move to the Senate, where Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, waits to shepherd the legislation to his fellows. This, too, should be marked in West Michigan: east and west, Democrat and Republican, combining efforts to end a long “sentence” that handcuffed and gagged businesses to favor prison inmates.

Perhaps not a total shock is the fact that it has taken all that just to move the legislation against the protectionist bureaucrats, now likely to whine about the implications on this social program among prison inmates. Such should be viewed against the recession putting thousands out of work, most especially furniture industry employees in West Michigan.

To his credit (and the further redemption of convicts), Hoekstra provided in its stead prison expansion of remedial education, vocation and apprenticeship programs, as well as a provision for work for non-profit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.

Those who believe the FPI competition with businesses is much ado about nothing should know office furniture is FPI’s largest business category, and recorded $583.5 million in net sales in 2001, as the West Michigan Big 3 saw the biggest losses in their history. Well more than half of that FPI business was with the Department of Defense.

Hoekstra’s first battle victory in the “mandatory purchase” war came as the 2002 Department of Defense budget bill was approved, allowing the military to buy from the seller providing the best value.

As the bill moves to the full House, its members should understand that FPI has expanded its line of products, all sold under the Unicor brand name, to include more than 80 industry product lines, including automotive and electronic components and textiles.

It is no wonder, then, that odd couples supported this legislation: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, currently headed by Steve Van Andel, and unions such as the United Auto Workers.

Perhaps therein is a model for local leadership on compelling business issues to assure continued economic expansion.           

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