Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lines of Change per Hour

I've said it before:  I dislike change.

I don't do "new" well.

But I realize that most of the time, change is unavoidable.  Especially when it comes to the economics of employment.  I may be set in my ways, but I'm not incapable of accommodating reality.  And today's reality, particularly when we're talking about jobs in our global marketplace, dictates our need to be flexible.  And flexibility requires change.

Most of us know this.  Which makes the news coming out of Auburn, New York today that much more curious.  I've talked about Auburn before.  It's home to the Empire State's second-oldest prison, which is also Auburn's largest employer.  But it's not the prison workers who are making news in this otherwise bucolic town, whose streets are lined with majestic old trees and beautiful Victorian mansions from more economically robust days.

A Fool's Errand in the Finger Lakes?

It's 150 union workers at the local TRW plant on the western side of town.  They went out on strike this morning, protesting changes to their work schedules they had assumed their 93-cents-an-hour wage concession three years ago would have helped them avoid.  TRW also wants the ability to hire temporary non-union workers when product demand is high, so they can avoid paying overtime to union workers, who currently earn an average of $12.13 per regular hour.  Not big bucks, especially considering New York State's personal income taxes, but if TRW's benefits package is as generous as a typical union employee's is, then they're not doing too poorly overall.

To run the Auburn facility seven days each week, TRW wants its 150 union workers to switch from a standard five-day, 40-hour workweek to either a new, four-day, 40-hour workweek, or a three-day, 36-hour workweek.  Those folks assigned to the three-day workweek will lose four hours of pay each week.

Personally, I think working three 12-hour days is a bit much, and I doubt TRW could expect equivalent productivity by increasing each workday by 50%.  Folks do tend to get tired, after all.  Especially when their hours have been cut so their schedule can fit into a shorter workweek.  But still, it's better than unemployment, and four ten-hour days a week isn't cruel and inhumane, especially since it would give you three days off each week.

And it's not like these workers are forging steel or mining coal.  TRW's Auburn plant makes "cognitive safety systems" as part of its global electronics division.  These are remote locks and tire pressure systems for passenger automobiles.  And the union?  It's not the burly Transport Workers Union, but the International Chemical Workers Union.  Not exactly the heavy-lifters of the automotive industry, are they?

One union member complained to the Syracuse media that "the shift change they're asking for would really change people's lives."


And unemployment wouldn't?

Good grief - that person obviously didn't read my blog essay last week about how New York State consistently ranks near the bottom of business desirability surveys.  Its unemployment rate is 8.5%, and for decades, it's been hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs.  I don't believe for a minute that TRW's management is staffed by saints, but you have to give the company credit for holding out as long as it has in such a hostile corporate environment as the Empire State.

Labor Relations in a Global Environment

Speaking of hostile, photos of one of the picketers show her holding a protest sign reading "Corporate Bullying."  As if TRW is pushing their workers around simply because they can.

Yes, corporate bullying does exist, and yes, in the good old days of legitimate unionizing, executives seemed to make a sport of seeing how badly they could treat their workers and get away with it.  But times have changed.  If TRW is like most modern car part companies, they're more concerned about their bottom line than angering their workforce for no good reason.  They need productivity these days, not bad press and disgruntled employees.  Perhaps the suits at corporate haven't done a good-enough job of explaining to their union workers how the longer workdays and shorter workweeks will help the company save money, and by extension, jobs.  If that's the case, then those suits that, yes, make a lot of money, need to earn their own keep by communicating better.

But for all the big picture economics with which TRW is likely wrestling in our global marketplace, these union workers should be grateful that their employer is making this much effort to keep jobs in Auburn.  The company has 60,000 employees in 26 countries around the world, which makes this 150-person operation in New York's picturesque yet economically-stagnant Finger Lakes region a speck in its corporate lens.  And if these union folks persist in their work stoppage, they'll also be a fly in the ointment.  A big, vast vat of ointment full of jobs people in developing countries would gladly take at a fraction of the Auburn payroll.

Production workers cannot look at the profit statements of their corporate employers and assume they deserve a greater share of those billions of dollars.  The issue isn't whether you contribute to your company's ability to make such grand profits, but whether there are other people across the globe who are willing to share even less of the corporate pie than you are.  Is that unfair?  Of course it is, in that top executives at any firm are rarely literally worth their compensation packages.  But those big bucks are incentives, not rewards.  And when it comes to golden parachutes, instead of saying "thank you," they buy silence.  Which, in itself, speaks volumes about today's corporate ethics.

It's no secret that change is needed in how big business operates, but union workers are hardly in a position to overhaul corporate America, unless you're talking about the offshoring of jobs.

Sure, this new reality is painful, particularly to the workers being forced to realize they're no more valuable than somebody else in another part of the world they may never meet.  In fact, if desire for the work is factored into the mix, walking off the job in places like Auburn, New York, puts union picket walkers at a distinct disadvantage.

I hate the phrase, "change is good."  Yes, sometimes it is; but many times, it's not.  And yes, the changes at TRW's Auburn facility may force minor adjustments in the lifestyles of many of its workers.  But change which is a different degree of the same normal - as in, no loss of pay or benefits - is better than change for the worse. As in, no union job at all.

Isn't it?

On the one hand, I can sympathize for the folks in the International Chemical Workers Union, since I don't like change either.  But if I were them, I'd take the work hour changes to unemployment.

After all, just as change can be good, it can also be bad.  Or worse.

And in a state like New York, picket lines turn into unemployment lines quickly.  Like somebody's political slogan used to be, that's "change you can believe in."

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