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Milestone for labor relations Symbolic extermination of 'the rat' signals different approach by unions

Wall Street is melting down. Taxpayers now own the world's largest insurance company. A vice presidential candidate wants you to know that she knows how to dress a moose. And if all that weren't enough to classify this as a stupendously chaotic year, consider this: Buffalo building trades unions have done away with the rat.

Yes, the rat. It's gone. The ugly, giant, inflatable vermin with the fiery eyes and Morticia Addams claws is no more. It's been shredded -- cut into tiny pieces. The world as we know it truly has changed. In this case, though, it's a good thing. The rat is gone because the unions and contractors have realized, if belatedly, that they need each other.

The United Auto Workers figured this out more than 20 years ago. Car manufacturers and union members may, at times, be in an adversarial position, but they can't be enemies -- not if they want to succeed in a world where the competition only becomes more difficult.

Something similar holds true for labor relations in the construction industry. In a poor region of the state, labor and management have to do the best they can, given their sometimes differing missions, to keep costs manageable. Just as important, they have to avoid scaring away developers through job-site tactics that, in the past, have gone over the top, and sometimes all the way to illegal.

The trade unions have been some of the most aggressive in the region for promoting antagonism as a strategy, and it's good to see them dropping it in favor, we understand, of more collaborative approaches. No one expects Buffalo Building and Construction Trades Council unions to do anything but look out for the good of their members, but they seem to have realized that that mission will often put them on the same side as the contractors who hire them.

So the rat, an intimidation prop deployed at non-union job sites, has gone away. That marks some kind of hopeful turning point in private-sector Western New York labor relations, but it still leaves the public-sector unions -- especially Buffalo's police, fire and teacher unions -- clinging to outdated labor approaches that hearken to the 1950s.

That nut will be harder to crack, since those public-sector employers -- unlike a carmaker or a contractor -- aren't going to go out of business. Yet public-sector unions in other parts of the country have been known to be respectful of the needs of taxpayers. It could happen here, right?

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