Monday, September 7, 2009

For Labor Day

For the balance of human history, workers were employed at the whim of their employer. There were no rules governing working conditions or compensation or time off. The terms were whatever suited the employer, when it suited the employer.

And workers suffered accordingly.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the imbalance only worsened. For the employer, mechanization meant greater output and greater profits with lower production costs.

For the employee, it meant exhausting days under gruesome conditions. Children were enlisted to feed industry’s insatiable appetite. Six-day work weeks with ten-hour days were typical. At its worst, seven-day work weeks full of fourteen-hour days devoured the lives of men, women and children alike.

Reform eventually began with children, and with the rise to power of the union soon extended to adults. Workers at last had a say in the conditions and terms of their employment, putting an end to the exploitation enjoyed by the nation’s employers.

And this was a good thing.

The wealthy were loathe to admit it, but the rise of the union (and with it the middle-class) only enriched them, as it meant more people with more disposable income. It was a far cry from the Marxist redistribution of wealth America’s captains of industry had feared. But the equilibrium couldn’t last. A handful of unions began to amass enormous power.

The United Auto Workers union (UAW) was the most-powerful.

America’s auto manufacturers had a near-monopoly on what was easily the world’s biggest market. General Motors controlled fifty-percent of the market. The other half was essentially divided between Ford and Chrysler, with a handful of smaller automakers and imports fighting for whatever remained.

And the UAW controlled one-hundred percent of their labor.

The UAW was phenomenally-successful at extracting generous terms for its membership. Even as domestic automakers began to lose market-share, UAW members continued to receive lavish contracts, with salaries and benefits disproportionate to their skill and education levels. This was the fruit of a corpulent corporate culture that would soon be receiving a lap band.

As America’s industrial might migrated overseas, its manufacturing-based economy was replaced by a service-oriented one. These were typically lower-paying jobs in offices, not factories. They were also rarely unionized. The convergence of increasing consumer unhappiness with domestic automobiles and an increasingly white collar workforce changed the perception of unions.

Unions were held-up as shelters for wildly-overcompensated, lazy and incompetent workers. The workers at Chicago’s McCormick Place were exposed to public derision for the terms of their union contracts; contracts which drove and rewarded unproductive behavior.

Then-president Ronald Reagan was widely-praised when he smashed the air traffic controller’s union. Unions had become overripe fruit. The social pendulum had reached the end of its labor-friendly swing, and was now beginning a move in the opposite direction.

As the seventies became the eighties and the eighties became the nineties, union membership continued to fall. Where they still existed, unions were mere shadows of their former selves. Members routinely made concessions in return for having a job to report to.

Mercury Marine (an outboard motor manufacturer in Fond du Lac, WI.) recently demanded that union members either accept a seven-year wage-freeze and a thirty-percent wage-cut for laid-off workers (called back to work), or face losing their jobs when the company opened a proposed non-union plant in Stillwater, OK.

Additional concessions would reduce vacation time and affect both health care and pension benefits.

Faced with having a job versus not having a job, workers voted Friday and reluctantly accepted the company’s offer.

The gulf between America’s richest and poorest continues to widen. An ever-increasing percentage of America's wealth is held in fewer and fewer hands as income inequity continues to soar. CEOs make hundreds (hundreds!) of times what their employees do.

Yet America’s workers are told they must concede to remain competitive in the new global marketplace. Curious that executive compensation continues to rise amidst all this belt-tightening and globalization, isn’t it?

On the one-way street that employment has become, it is clear that unions are once again the best path towards restoring two-way traffic. In a country with an economy which is two-thirds consumer-driven, even the short-sighted and the self-serving that pass for corporate leadership need to acknowledge the importance of a viable middle-class.

And that begins with viable unions.

It's time to give the pendulum a shove in a new direction.

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