Monday, February 28, 2011

The Decline and Fall of Organized Labor

Once you get past his distorted, myopic history of the labor movement, Robert Samuelson makes some valid points about organized labor. Without rehashing the history of unions, I'll leave my response to his myopia at this:
It's hard for us to recall now how dominant unions were immediately after World War II. By the mid-1950s, unions represented 36 percent of private-sector workers. Most major industries were organized: railroads, coal, steel, autos, telephones, tires, airlines, trucking. Strikes in crucial industries constantly threatened to hobble the entire economy, though in practice, companies stockpiled steel and coal in advance of contract expirations, and Congress cut short railroad strikes.
Samuelson's argument undermines the common Republican prevarication that businesses won't open, expand or hire without absolute certainty as to the future state of the economy and tax rates, as if such certainty were possible. But more to the point, which would you choose? Samuelson's past in which businesses were theoretically at risk of having "" hobbled, yet the economy experienced dramatic growth and a vibrant middle class emerged, or the present era in which businesses see massive profits, the wealthiest Americans continue to gain in gross disproportion to the rest of society, while the economy stagnates? If Samuelson is trying to depict the present economic malaise as an improvement over the 1950's, he needs to re-check his facts.

I can respect the utopian argument that enlightened management policies through the same era might have brought about the same or better growth, and a similar emergence of a strong middle class, without the participation of organized labor, but... here I am, stuck in the real world in which that would not have happened.

Samuelson correctly observes that a large part of the reason unions have faltered is that they have failed to adapt to changes in the marketplace. He elides the fact that many of the changes were far outside of their control - and many were in fact the result of industry lobbying for legislation and trade policies that were intended to weaken unions - but it's nonetheless true. As companies exploited "right to work" laws and overseas factories in order to avoid unionizing, the unions didn't look toward the future - or even to a nation like Germany in which unions have remained strong in association with high-tech manufacturing. Instead they seemed intend upon preserving an unsustainable status quo. (It's my understanding that Germany's labor laws make it relatively easy for workers, dissatisfied with one union's representation, to switch to another - so I can't say I'm surprised that U.S. unions weren't eager to advocate for a similar model.)

To paraphrase a frequent visitor, CWD, labor agreements are negotiated between employers who would prefer to have employees do a lot of work for no wages, and unions who would prefer to have workers do no work for high wages, with the two sides entering into a labor agreement reflecting some sort of compromise between those two extremes. Occasionally a union leader has attempted to shift the relationship from purely adversarial toward mutually beneficial strategic planning, and occasionally large corporations have experimented with novel union contracts, but for the most part no effort is made to get outside of the adversarial status quo, and efforts to take a different approach seem to be rebuffed or quickly abandoned as "too hard".

Samuelson is also correct that both unions and the major industries that provided the bulk of unionized positions failed to see how a globalized economy would affect them. Even as the Big Three auto manufacturers were building plants in Mexico and developing overseas markets, they often stumbled both in terms of their product offerings and in terms of product quality. Meanwhile a different type of "union" arose - trade associations, such as NADA, that were incredibly successful at getting state legislatures to pass laws to protect the markets and profits of car dealerships.

To a significant degree, the lobbying efforts of major corporations helped create an advantage for foreign companies entering the U.S. market. As foreign car manufacturers entered the U.S. markets they were able to both exploit "right to work" laws so as to largely avoid unions, and to create smaller dealer networks rather than being trapped into an existing structure of dealerships created before states passed laws that would hamper their ending their relationships with unneeded or poor quality dealerships.

One thing that Samuelson's column highlights is the role of public relations in the decline of organized labor. When you read a screed against unions, you'll usually see a list of excesses offered as a justification for reducing or eliminating the rights of workers to organize. "There's a police officer in New York who retired with a huge pension, more than his final year's salary, so public workers in Wisconsin shouldn't be allowed to unionize," or "My daddy was a management negotiator back in the 1950's and due to vague union threats we had a police car parked outside of our house during a round of negotiations, so unions are uniformly evil." The fact that those arguments from anecdote aren't logically sound isn't the point. The fact is, most people have at least one similar "union story" they can share, so for people on the outside of unions it's pretty easy to succumb to the idea that unions are, on the whole, a negative force. I have a relative who worked in union jobs for her entire career, but openly detested every union except the one she happened to be in at the time - that one offered important job protections against unreasonable managers.

It's not that unions have been completely blind to the P.R. war, and the low number of strikes in recent decades stands as evidence that unions understand that, for the general public, their work stoppages translate into a perception of "How dare your union inconveniece me." But while every union contract involved a management negotiator, unions have failed to remind the public of that, or to create an effective counter-argument, when the media starts talking about the "rubber rooms" of New York Schools or the "jobs bank" at General Motors. They have not been good at creating a public perception that it's perfectly appropriate for the union to stand behind a member who is facing disciplinary proceedings and to make the employer prove its case that the worker should be fired - that protecting its members from inappropriate discipline is a core function of its job. That when management fails to follow proper disciplinary procedures, fails to properly document discipline, and otherwise fails to follow the rules it negotiated and accepted in the last round of union negotiations, such that a worker who deserves to be fired ends up being retained, that's management's fault.

Unions have also failed to recognize how the public perceives some of its actions. It's legitimate to protect workers' jobs and to attempt to have employers retain and retrain workers as new technologies emerge, but the general public will never smile on featherbedding. It's fine to require that employers respect the divisions between categories of worker, so as to not have a lower paid category of workers displace jobs in what should be a higher paid category, but things reach the point of absurdity when every job description has to describe as a job duty, "...and other tasks as assigned by your supervisor," lest the worker be able to protest, "My job description says I am to copy and collate documents, but it's not my job to staple them." The public does not appreciate the conception that it's management's job to ensure that workers do their jobs and care about quality, and that when the culture of workers trends toward laziness and inefficiency the union should bear no blame. Many people, in the past, have attempted to obtain union jobs only to find out that next to no one gets hired unless they're a friend or relative of a current worker. Yes, it's difficult to both be strong advocates for workers and to stay in front of a P.R. war that depicts every union success as a tragedy for society, but nobody ever said running a union would be easy.

For that matter, many unions seem to take for granted that their job should be easy. Organize a workplace, collect dues, attempt to impose a pretty standard contract on the employer, and not do a heck of a lot more until the next round of negotiations. "For only $50 per week in union dues, we'll get you an extra $60 per week in income (if your employer doesn't shut down to avoid having a union factory)." When the going gets tough, some unions seem far too quick to pit classes of employees against each other (existing workers get package X, new workers get package Y). If you create a culture in which workers don't like, don't trust, feel underserved by, or resent their own union, what sort of future do you think you're creating for the labor movement?

Organized labor has also done a poor job of demonstrating why it is still needed (see, e.g., anti-union comments to the effect of, "Now that we have OSHA, we don't need unions to ensure workplace safety") or why non-union workers should view them as a positive. Why should workers who don't enjoy the benefits and protections of union membership celebrate the fact that their unionized brothers and sisters have more job security, better benefits, and perhaps also better pay? Why haven't unions been able to communicate how their past efforts have contributed to the economic rise of workers across the job market, and that part of the reason that non-unionized workers are presently suffering is that organized labor is weak? As Samuelson observes, "If public-sector unions fail, Little Labor could become Mini Labor." So whatcha gonna do about it?

1 comment:

  1. Let's also not forget PATCO and classism.