Bye-Bye, Union-Made American Pie

Some people, lots of people, would rather fight than solve. They’d rather curse the darkness, and blame those they say caused the darkness, than light one candle and start finding a way out of the woods.

I refer to the increasingly acrid fight over the Big Three Bailout/United Auto Workers. Predictably, some want to keep this argument within their comfort zone, making it a conventional Struggling Labor Li’l Guy vs. Heartless Fat Cats Trying to Stamp Out Unions. (Of course, Bush’s stance in favor of helping the Big Three messes up the usual script, since he is a Heartless Fat Cat. Hmm. His offer of aid must be a clever ruse that, in the end, will hasten the death of the unions.)

Several points:

1. Of course it’s not fair to ask concessions of the labor unions/Big Three when the financial titans were handed billions with no strings attached. Strings should have been attached to the Wall Street bailout;  a Bank Czar with real muscle should have been appointed.

But as sports scribe Randy Galloway used to say, there’s only one Fair, and it comes to Dallas for three weeks every October. Other than that, there is no fair. Never was.

 Was it “fair” that unions were able to build in layers of security for their workers that were not enjoyed by others who worked just as hard for lower pay  in non-union jobs?  Millions of people who were  tossed out of their jobs over the past few decades would have loved  a shop steward who would plead their case, but they didn’t have one.

2. Of course  some Republican Senators  are anti-union, always were, made no secret of it. Next? Some Dem Senators never met a union initiative they didn’t love. One side gets big bucks from CEOs. The other side gets big bucks from unions.  What a revelation.

3. Despite the corruption that haunted some unions, the unions played a valuable balancing r0le for a century in America. And there’s no doubt (see Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) that many a factory owner (back when we still had some factories)  would drive wages into the ground if he had no opposition.  

4. I think my attitude toward unions is much like that of many Americans. I’ve never belonged to one, but I recognize the good they have done for many families.  My late father-in-law, for example,  was a staunch union member who  spent 40 years working in a Houston refinery.  He had a beautiful big home, a cabin in Colorado and a  country club membership. Though he only had a high school education, he put three kids through college largely on one nice salary.  Whenever I heard him tell stories of union life, I was glad for him (and, yes, a bit jealous, as in “Where’s my union?”)

5.  All that said, you still have to come back to the Tom Friedman argument in The World is Flat, as noted here earlier.  Union success depends on barriers–of distance, time, education, language, etc.– between labor and management and  between buyers and sellers.   When those barriers fall, what was a union advantage becomes a union weakness.

Suppose that you belong to a radiologists’ union. Your people look at medical tests and interpret the results. You make $18 an hour doing it.

Now, thanks to the miracle of the Web, streaming video, long-distance networks, etc., bright young folks in Calcutta and Bangalore can be hired to interpret the tests. These educated folks will gladly do the work for $12 an hour. Their work is on a par with the higher-paid Americans.

You know the rest. The doctors can either pay $18 an hour for sentimental/patriotic reasons, or they can slash their costs 33% by going with the Indians. If you’re one of the docs, what would you do? (My answer: If  business was going great guns, I’d like to think I’d keep my fellow Americans on the job. But if things slowed down and I really needed to cut back on costs. . . )

6. Those disappearing barriers explain why  labor unions thrive in only a few niches. Take the airline pilots’  union, for example. They’ve had some success (in an otherwise floundering industry) because barriers of education and training protect them. It’s hard to fly a 747, and not many people can do it at any given time. If brain surgeons wanted to unionize, they’d have even more power than pilots.  By contrast, anyone of average IQ can learn to bolt the doors onto a Suburban in a week or so.

 From WW II well into the 1970s, auto workers could call the tune because the Big Three didn’t have any real competition. If you wanted a car you got a car made in Detroit by GM, Ford or Chrysler, and those cars were union-made.

But once foreign competition geared up, the world began to flatten. Today, nobody has to buy a union-made car. (Full disclosure: We have two American cars, including a Ford Escape  which replaced a 14-year old Toyota Camry.)

I’m doing a KERA/NPR radio piece on this topic in the next few days. I’ll add a few more thoughts later.

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