Monday, June 2, 2014

Unions Busting a Good Idea?

Labor unions in North America are reviled by political conservatives.

Teamsters inflate the costs of manufacturing, which raises prices, which pushes jobs overseas.  Labor makes unreasonable demands on employers trying to outwit the competition.  Unions are comprised of a bunch of bullies who simmer at the verge of anarchy the minute things don't go their way.

Labor unions don't understand how to survive in a capitalistic economy.  They prefer wealth redistribution over the profit motive.  They may have had a role to play in American society, but not any more.

Sounds about right, huh?  But unless you keep up with the modern labor movement in the United States, you might be surprised with something a prominent labor leader has been trying to do.  He's been trying to recruit new members, but not entirely for the reasons you might expect.

The president of the United Auto Workers stepped down today in Detroit, and delivered a speech in which he further championed his vision for the future.  His name is Bob King, and unbeknownst to me, his four-year tenure at the helm of one of North America's most notorious unions has been marked by struggle and dissent against this vision of his.  Not just from anti-union people like me, but from within his own ranks.

You see, King's mission has been to expand the Western labor union model to other parts of the globe, where they either do not exist at all, or are ineffective at wielding political power.  And for King, it hasn't been simply a numbers game, to shore up the UAW's finances with new dues-paying members.

King appears to have heard what conservatives have been saying for decades:  that yes, labor is a major cause of America's manufacturing decline.  Of course, however, he's not going to explicitly agree that unions are the problem.  However, he thinks he has a solution to the problem he won't admit exists.

A problem King will address involves the lack of potent unionization in the developing world.  Workers in poorer countries who lack organized collective bargaining power are dragging America down.  In other words, America now faces competition not within the states, or with Canada, but with Cambodia, Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, Poland, Bangladesh, Honduras, and India.  Not to mention China.

Which is true, isn't it?

King's dream is to try and level the global playing field by raising worker pay overseas, which would reduce the attractiveness of outsourcing to American employers.  And a rapid method of achieving that goal would be to deploy union protocols amongst workers in countries where American jobs have gone, and continue to go.

His grasp of reality defies conventional teamster rhetoric.  Unionized wages and benefits in North America may be high, but even if wages were drastically lowered, and benefits gutted, there's no way an American worker can compete with workers in other countries earning $2.00 a day.  Not per hour; per day!  There are plenty of people in Majority World countries who are desperate for employment at pennies on the dollar; people who don't know what they're really worth on the open job market.  An open, global market with basic standards for respecting the health and safety of workers on the job.  And the communities in which they work.

King's strategy is to educate workers around the world about the global marketplace in which those people, too, now operate.  Globalization has hit American industry hard, but it has only begun to benefit parts of the globe where things like reliable electricity and drinking water are more luxury than standard.  Imagine what could happen if laborers in Senegal and Bangladesh begin to understand that clean water they can drink from a tap inside of their house is understood to be a fundamental right all over the United States!  And should be a fundamental right in their own communities!  Unions could be the tool that humanitarians use to help guide entire countries towards civic reforms that raise the standard of living for billions of people.

Of course, corporate America, especially the companies that have already off-shored their work overseas, aren't pleased with King's international unionization push.  For all they may spend on token humanitarian aid, about which they can brag on TV commercials, Western companies that employ Third World labor are about as interested in those peoples' wellbeing as they are the Americans they laid off while sending jobs overseas in the first place.  These companies have ridden a gravy train of cost savings by paying people in foreign countries a pittance of what they used to pay their American workers.  Having those low-paid workers unionize and learn about rising up against greedy employers is not conducive to profitability.

But if this drive for low costs has been all about scraping the bottom of the barrel for the lowest common denominator - to benefit businesses - why shouldn't foreign workers have the chance to benefit, and improve their lifestyles?  Are corporations more important, and shareholders?  What makes foreign workers inferior to Americans?  They're human beings, after all.  Why should they do without while we continue to enjoy our paved roads, reliable Internet connectivity, code-compliant housing, and well-trained fire departments?  Not to mention all of the trinkets and knickknacks we insist on purchasing at dollar stores and Walmart?

To the extent that employers are exploiting workers abroad, where those workers cannot complain to American consumers about their low pay, dangerous working conditions, and child labor violations, then I frankly have little sympathy if such employers encounter unionization efforts brewing at those factories.  Is unionization itself to blame for the ills its leadership and membership have inflicted upon our economy?  It's hard to argue that the American lifestyle we enjoy today could have been attained without the forcefulness of unions back over a century ago; a forcefulness that led to standards of pay, benefits, healthcare, worker protections, vacations, sick days, and the five-day workweek that we Americans take for granted today.

Not that King was entirely altruistic.  In his farewell speech today, he regretted the problems American unions have had in recruiting new members in our country, particularly in the South, where a lot of manufacturing work that hasn't been offshored has instead been relocated.  King still thinks conventional unionization has a role in the North American economy, while many employers are increasingly saying they don't.

Nevertheless, it was interesting to learn that for the past four years, King has been trying to get American union workers to agree with his vision for the future.  He's been advocating the launching of social welfare and social justice efforts overseas, arguing that such humanitarian work could help pave the way for a broader embrace of American-style unions, at least among the working masses.

Haven't you heard about his strategy?  Well, neither had I.  And you have to admit - his is a long shot, and his is an organization that lacks a pristine track record when it comes to altruism.  Besides, neither foreign-based companies nor offshoring American companies would welcome such overtures.  For one thing, they could argue that they're not responsible for providing a living wage, but simply what market forces make each job worth to the employer.  It's a debate that gets answered based on one's worldview, which means consensus will forever be elusive, and functionality in the interim will be manipulated by whomever is the most powerful.

Barring a horrific collapse in our way of life, in which our economy looses the stability of a middle class, the problem for American unions will be that the cost of living - and employing workers - in countries like Bangladesh will still likely be far less than they are in North America, at least for many years to come.  Plus, even if the entire world unionized tomorrow, there are still huge problems in most foreign countries that will not be overcome simply because workers are paid more money.  Florrid political corruption is endemic across much of the globe, along with cultural mores that can be punitive, discriminatory, and vehemently opposed to the civil rights laws that most Western countries have.  And I'm not talking about controversial things like gay marriage - I'm talking about the human rights of women and children not to be exploited because of their gender or age.  Look no further than China  for proof.  It's perhaps the best example of a government's trouncing of human rights while still being able to become a manufacturing powerhouse big enough to dethrone the United States' economy - which some experts predict could happen this year.

Perhaps it's telling that King's efforts at global unionization have apparently not gone over well with his constituency here.  Apparently, a significant portion of America's organized labor force remains unconvinced of their perilous status, undeterred by the reality of globalization, and unfazed by the plight of those working under far more dangerous conditions - and for far less pay - to make the same stuff overseas that was being made here just a few years ago.

If that's the case, and King's going-around-through-the-back-door strategy of shoring up American jobs fails to impress the very people whose jobs he thinks he can save, then I guess perhaps we'll have our final answer regarding whether or not North American unions have officially become obsolete.

Even by their own leaderships' standards.

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