Happy Labor Day

Workers last month at the Nissan plant in Mississippi rejected a proposal to join the UAW by a large margin. A Labor Day post at Forbes explores a couple of interesting cross-currents in this vote.

First, as mentioned in a previous piece, when it looks like someone is voting against their interests, there’s a good chance I’ve misunderstood their interests. An American left dominated by affluent urban workers with little blue collar experience is increasingly out of touch with the needs of the “common man.” Attitudes toward unions are just one symptom of this growing disconnect.

The piece also examines some of the reasons that union organizing efforts have been failing so consistently in recent years. It may be true that workers benefit from organization, but a 19th century union model may not be the best way to accomplish that objective.

48 Comments

  1. That’s a great article, but I’d make several points:

    1) You may be right that traditional unions like the UAW are an anachronism, but there are other models right now, such as SAG (Screen Actors Guild). Actors are the very epitome of the gig-economy, moving from one movie or show to another every few months. And there is no seniority-based rigidness: pay is based on merit and ability to draw legions of fans to the theaters (aside from a minimum salary that SAG negotiates for all actors). So what does SAG do? It takes care of everything else, such as workplace safety, protections from overtime abuse, ensuring that actors get their entitled residuals from broadcasts (sometimes decades after the shows stopped being filmed), setting up common health insurance and pensions plans, etc.

    So if your point is that seniority-based, single-factory-based unions are no longer relevant, you may be right. But that doesn’t negate the need for unions like SAG (which ironically uses an even older model of guild associations).

    2) Don’t confuse what workers want with what they’re willing to settle for in the current climate. WalMart has shut down entire stores where a single department voted to unionize, willing to take the loss of income in order to terrorize workers in other stores from voting for a union. While workers may have very real concerns about unions (corrupt union bosses taking a cut from their paycheck while being in bed with the corporate execs and protecting favored workers rather than working for everyone equally), don’t assume they’ve automatically found a new faith in the benevolence of their corporate masters.

    3) Your comparison to white collar workers is not apt for several reasons. Firstly, line workers *are* more replaceable than lawyers (or movie stars). Even in today’s high-tech factories, line workers have far less negotiating power than a google engineer with 10 years of education in AI. That’s why that google engineer has far less need for a union, and gets benefits unimaginable to a line worker (professional chefs in the cafeteria? transportation to/from work? Foosball tables in their office??) without resorting to collective bargaining.

    And speaking of those google engineers: Talk to many of them and they fervently wish for a union (maybe not UAW, but some sort of collective organizing). They may have a foosball table in the office, but most don’t have any pensions, must train their H1B replacements before their jobs get outsourced to Bangalore, and are forced to answer emails at 4am and come into the office on weekends or risk losing their jobs. Most don’t even use up all of their vacation time each year because they’re afraid of offending their boss by requesting the time off (or fear they’ll be fired once the office realizes they’re doing okay without them around). Oh yeah, and ask them how easy it is to get a job in Silicon Valley after you hit 40…

    For all their benign chatter about “Don’t be Evil”, silicon valley companies are as ruthless when it comes to exploiting their workers as any sweatshop in the rural South. After all, they did just get busted by the Justice Dept. for colluding amongst themselves to keep their engineer salaries low, something even WalMart has never been found guilty of. For the time being, due to a shortage of workers, they’re in a seller’s market for talent, but when that shortage equilibrates, you’ll see plenty of tech workers crying for collective bargaining protections.

    4) Depending on the government in the absence of collective bargaining (whether in the form of current unions or not) is very foolish. Those protections were implemented once unions fought for them and they were already becoming prevalent, and they are being rolled back now that union pressure is no longer there. Witness cuts to Social Security & Medicare. Or the way companies are now allowed to raid their workers’ pension funds, stealing the earnings they agreed to defer, in order to pay for stock buybacks and dividends. Or the unpaid overtime that is becoming rampant. Or the workers compensation programs that are being cut. In short, the protections that were implemented can very easily be rolled back without constant pressure to keep them up. It’s not like the corporate world has given up on dismantling the New Deal because they lost that fight 70 years ago.

    5) This shift to a more mobile, gig-based economy is *not* a good thing. Forget about the tremendous toll it takes on people who can’t put down roots and develop a stable social and community network (far more important to happiness than your job). It is bad for our economy. The key to increasing productivity isn’t to have everyone become a jack-of-all-trades master-of-none guy who can make coffee, drive a car, assemble a truck door, and code a basic web page. It’s to have people who spend a lifetime in a narrow, challenging field, developing the expertise to accomplish something that a high school graduate in Shenzen can’t do.

    Already, companies complain that while there are plenty of people with basic skills, they can’t find people with the narrow, highly specialized skills they need, even if they’re willing to pay. Of course they can’t: when their workers know they won’t be around in 5 years, why would they waste their time developing that type of deep expertise relevant only to their current employer?

    Anyway, while I agree that the present structure of collective bargaining (e.g. the UAW) may not be relevant in an economy in which fewer and fewer workers work in traditional factories, that doesn’t negate the need for collective bargaining in some form. As long as there are more employees than employers, there will always be a fundamental power asymmetry which will need collective bargaining to compensate for it.

    1. WX – Perfectly said. I would like to point out that with the cuts to Workmen’s Comp benefits principally occurring in “red” states, OMB Director Munchkin (sp!) has recommended to Trump a $70 Billion cut to Social Security Disability Income, SSDI. The combination will be devastating to those injured on the job and from other health issues.

      America is becoming a very unkind place to live and work.

    2. I assume you were referencing government employees in item # 3. I have friends (both tax attorneys/IRS/retired) who feel that collective bargaining is critical to protect the benefits they signed on to in exchange for lower compensation in their fields than they would have had in the private sector. It needs to be sane, balanced and procedural, but it did serve them well in their careers. Of course, with Trumpkins (sp!) driving people away, the private sector may reap the benefit, but many loyal, long-term, highly skilled government staff with years invested in their government careers, are in a tough spot.

      1. Pretty much. There are also gaps in information.

        Theoretically, her daughter, whose home flooded also in another part of town, has registered her with FEMA.

        Theoretically, that means she may be eligible for lodging in a hotel.

        But getting all the information coordinated has been difficult.

  2. From the NYT: The UAW has maintained that Nissan has illegally threatened workers with the closure of their plant or the loss of their jobs if they voted in favor of unionization, a claim Nissan hotly denies. That claim has been backed by a number of complaints lodged by the NLRB.

    1. Or maybe workers in the South, including Black workers, are simply not used to the idea of unions, which are taken for granted in Northern states, don’t really understand them, or they follow the lead of their coworkers, whom they probably trust more than a bunch of union types.

      Back in the early 1960s, my mom was urged to join a group of striking workers in her industry in Houston. She asked her boss what he planned to do, he said he would not participate, and so she decided she wouldn’t either. She played it safe.

      1. There is an interesting contradiction in Chris’ argument, one which, with all respect, seems to come from a certain place of privilege. On its face, I agree with what he says, but at the same time, that also assumes that these workers are in a position where they can afford to be as fluid as he makes the economy as a whole out to be.

        To sum it up, what applies to many doesn’t apply to all.

      2. If we were to see a rejection of unions in Northern states, where they are part of the social fabric, then you could make the case that workers are becoming more independent. That would be making the statement that unions are becoming less relevant.

        In the South, the very concept of unions as necessary has never even taken hold, so the rejection of something that was never relevant to begin with — this rejection is simply a CONTINUATION of a way of thinking, an even further entrenchment, given the current economic situation, not a turning away.

      3. One very important deterrant that would keep workers in Southern states from accepting unionization is the required payment of dues. Why turn over part of your hard-earned paycheck to any organization, especially one that hasn’t proven what it can do for you?

      4. People’s access to basic workplace protections and benefits shouldn’t be dependent upon unions. Management should want to and duly provide them. Here’s the problem – those rights (which unions helped attain decades ago) are being eroded.

        To wit: Changes to Workmen’s Compensation Laws – Some have been positive; others remove critical workplace protection and coverage. Check state by state but most reductions to Workmen’s Comp benefits have been in “red” states.
        Hourly Pay – That story is well known. How many people work 2-3 minimum wage jobs to cobble together enough income to survive? Who is getting pay cuts? Where is wealth accumulating? Why aren’t workers sharing more in that financial success?
        Gender Equality – Progress has been made via educational attainment, but women continue to earn $0.80 on the dollar for doing the same work as their male counterparts.
        Paid Maternity Leave – The United States is one of only two countries in the world that don’t mandate paid maternity leave – Forbes, 2016.
        Overtime rules have changed, rolling back improvements made by Pres. Obama. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-labor-overtime/trump-administration-moves-closer-to-undoing-overtime-pay-rule-idUSKBN1AA2DZ

        Thankfully – Child labor laws are still intact.

      5. ***that also assumes that these workers are in a position where they can afford to be as fluid as he makes the economy as a whole out to be***

        It’s a good observation, and maybe it’s correct. Consistent with the premise of the piece, test it. If you get a chance, ask someone working at Starbucks or Target whether they want to be working there in five years…or even next summer. And ask if that answer would be the same if the wages were two or three dollars an hour higher. Answers may vary, but I suspect you’d start to detect a pattern.

        The auto workers at Nissan are probably in a different situation in terms of permanence, but maybe not in terms of mobility. Nissan illustrates another point, not really touched on much in the post – industrial life isn’t what it used to be. A lot of these people are absolutely thrilled to be working there. They’ve never experienced anything better in their lives. Mississippi is a 3rd world country getting access to a few first world jobs. A union is the last thing on their minds.

      6. To Tutta’s comment about lack of flexibility – I think her point is valid in the case you cite – in Mississippi. People here are thrilled to have a job and one that pays in double digits is much better than bussing tables for minimum wage or cleaning houses, or other menial jobs.

        Black females with children have to have help with the kids. Their ability more than mobility to get to work and stay on the job depends upon a network of help – usually provided by family. For that individual to pick up and move to a better paying job would be tough. The cycle of poverty is hard to break, and hardest in states like MS which has depended upon white power subjugating black majorities principally by keeping them poorly educated. This limits their options for work and advancement, generally.

        MS was a unique union case. I’m very interested on your view of the situation at Tesla in CA.

      7. Good to see all of you posting comments despite Harvey.

        The rust belt lost jobs because companies could manufacture cars more cheaply in other states or in other countries.

        Auto workers aren’t stupid. They realize that unionizing might cause the company they work for to move or have more of the work done somewhere else.

  3. Off topic, but do any of my fellow Houstonians know of any Harvey relief organization that IS accepting donations of clothing? I have several closetsful of my late mom’s clothes that I couldn’t bring myself to give away, but now is the perfect time. I’d rather give it to someone who needs it versus giving it to Goodwill. Thanks

    1. Also OT, is there anywhere to get new low-cost mattresses for Harvey victims?

      A group of users of the Texas muck map showed up at a home in the fifth ward. We tore out carpet and cleaned a couple of rooms.

      The residents, one in a wheelchair, another blind — not making this up — need new bedding.

      Ceilings collapsed over both bedrooms.

      They need mattresses. Does anyone know where I should check?

      1. Bobo, if you just need a couple of mattresses, I would maybe just go to one of those mattress places that you can find on any corner these days. Their advertised prices seem reasonable. I don’t know if you are planning to pay for them yourself, or you can ask your friends and neighbors for donations to help pay for the mattresses. Or are you thinking of providing mattresses and bedding on a large scale?

      2. Contacted the Red Cross and mattress Mac. We’ll see what happens. And when. And if.

        Red Cross continues its inability to report how much of the Harvey money they raise will actually go to Harvey efforts.

        http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/08/30/547435136/red-cross-exec-doesn-t-know-what-portion-of-donations-will-go-directly-to-harvey

        They did the same thing with Haiti. They are not financially well rated as a non-profit, only well known.

        The house I visited should never have been rented out. It should be condemned and torn down.

        Houston may be a welcoming city, but the city should be goddamn embarrassed that such lodging exists here.

        Handicapped people need safe places to live. It is a requirement of a civilized society.

  4. I’ve not read the posting at Forbes and I may have more to say once I’ve read it. In the meantime, let me state some some thoughts that I have:

    1. I believe that the model of unionization that we have in the US is anachronistic. We need a better model – one that will address the real concerns of the workers, including service workers, blue collar workers, white and pink collar workers and low level professionals, such as engineers and other technical workers.

    2. In today’s NY Times, there is a column by William E. Forbath and Brishen Rogers that discusses this concept. The link is:
    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/04/opinion/labor-laws-workers.html?ref=opinion

    3. In regards to industrial workers and some others, shifting to a concept wherein labor representatives actually sit on the boards and councils of corporations might be more appropriate. That allows for a less adversarial approach to labor relations and might result in more of a win-win situation. This might or might not be similar to the systems that the Germans and Japanese us. Nevertheless, I believe that the US must shift to a less adversarial approach to labor relations. Needless to say, an American system would need to reflect the American business environment.

    These are just thoughts that I have had and they are not fully formed. Nor have I done any real research regarding them. That has not been a very high priority, since I am retired and only briefly worked in an unionized environment while I was in college.

    1. >] “2. In today’s NY Times, there is a column by William E. Forbath and Brishen Rogers that discusses this concept. The link is:
      https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/04/opinion/labor-laws-workers.html?ref=opinion

      I’d actually support this at a state and local level, if only to break the back of people who think that unions can regain their former luster. At best, the reforms mentioned would be suited for a comparatively small base of low-wage workers. And hey, if that helps them in the short-term while they’re sorting out their lives, more power to them.

      Needless to say, if we happen to embark on a future where a basic income becomes reality, I could easily see that as being the death knell to the union movement in this country. #justsaying

    1. Ok, that was funny. Yes, consider your spot reserved.

      Let me also pre-suggest that workers at a late-stage industrial operation in a country like the US might, just perhaps, have needs that differ in some subtle ways from the needs of six year olds weaving carpets in a third-world hellhole. And maybe the choices those first-world workers make should influence our assumptions about what they need.

      1. Chris, I have been thinking about your Forbes comments for a day now.
        And I am afraid my writing is no-where near as crisp as yours, so my thoughts will meander here.

        I believe that others have said much of what I wanted to say. I wanted to refute what you said using data, but the best I can find is this OECD union density chart, and is is 3 years out of date, and it simply documents the world-wide decline in unions. But I think that the general decline can be explained due to manufacturing jobs moving from late-stage industrial countries to less-developed countries.

        https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=UN_DEN

        As for the necessity of unions, their main reason for existence is just as important as 100 years ago: To protect the workers from the capitalists. When I say “capitalists”, I mean the specific owners of companies, and that comes in the form of specific individuals and the far more nebulous “market”.

        Capital has no memory, no compassion, no soul. It simply follows one simple rule: maximize returns. Humans as a group are generally decent when a face can be applied to a plight of many, but when the same plight falls on anonymous groups, not so much. Case in point:

        Houston: massive outreach and compassion for the victims, as we all saw the TV coverage.
        India, Nepal, Bangladeh: How many in the U.S. even know what is going on there?

        And the capital markets are just that: anonymous. Capital will not, cannot, consider the impact on the individual, faceless worker.

        Sure, we have the Buffet’s and Koch’s and Bezos’ of the world (BTW, two of that group would be could considered hugely detrimental to the planet), but most capital in the world is tied up in the hands of hedge fund and mutual find operators, who are far removed from the individual worker. These operators are mandated to maximize the return for their investors, and that means driving wages and de-regulating as much as possible. If that means that capital flees a high cost area of production for a lower cost area, then that happens.

        And if capital can drive down costs locally, it will, with zero thought to the individual. That means wages, worker safety, pensions, offloading infrastructure to the gov’t (read as taxpayers).

        Capital has driven a campaign against unions since the first union was considered. The only difference is that the capitalists can’t openly hire union-busters to kill organizers.

  5. Not sure I follow your reasoning Chris. I work in an auto plant which has had several union votes . Most of the workers are temp and outsourced labor that don’t get a vote. The “company” employees that would get a vote are split into multiple “companies” ie: manufacture, logistics and procurement are actually separate legal entities on paper. I have talked to several of the manufacturing employees about their thoughts on union and what I hear is a Fox news screed on “socialism” and affirmative action (yes, really!). This is Trump country and the toxic waste of decades of right wing propaganda has left it’s mark. I think many underestimate the concerted effort of entrenched interest to own the narrative through think tanks and the press and the overarching success of that deliberate strategy.

    Is there a place for unions in our evolving economic age? I honestly don’t know but I have yet to hear anyone give the reasons you site for their anti-union vehemence.

    1. I hear you, and I’d expect that kind of rhetoric, but the Mississippi vote runs counter to that narrative. The overwhelming majority of those workers are African-American. I didn’t poll them, but you can be pretty certain that they’re Democrats, almost down to the last one. In that situation, all of the usual explanations were eliminated, leaving us at the end with one result: the workers didn’t want the union.

      Sometimes it’s a good idea to listen when people tell you what they want.

      If the Nissan plant had been an anomaly, then maybe we could just write it off. But every big effort to expand union organization over the past decade or so has failed. That goes for employees at miserable companies like Wal-mart as much as for workers at more humane places like Starbucks. Maybe, just maybe, people don’t want that form of organization as much as we think they should. And maybe they have some good reasons.

      1. It.is.not.rhetoric! Come on, Chris. The Mississippi Nissan Plant union vote says as much about the economy and educational levels of the workers and the state as it does their needs and desires for union representation. These workers, majority Black and most with high school degrees, are really between a rock and a hard place. As one MS worker I heard interviewed stated, “Where else can I earn $25/hour with my qualifications and education?” You think this person voted to unionize? She’s so afraid of losing what she has that she can’t risk alienating management who might give her job to someone else!

        A more interesting illustration might be to look at what’s happening re unionization of Tesla. These workers are better educated, living in a more expensive state, and are being paid less. There are any number of articles out there on what’s happening that will amplify their situation. Here’s a good opportunity to practice “listening” as a way to understand working people’s needs. My read of the situation is that these workers have a legitimate complaint. Is Elan Musk so fixated on his bottom line that he isn’t “listening”?

        https://medium.com/@moran2017j/time-for-tesla-to-listen-ab5c6259fc88

        Undoubtedly, unions have been and some are abusive; however, who else is looking out for the blue collar working man? Donald Trump???? The Republican Party? Say what you will about the Democratic Party – We agree they can improve their listening but they have been there for the working man over time. The fact that their wages and benefits are shrinking is less a function of Democratic Party disregard than it is due to our changing economy and how our workforce adjusts and prepares for the future. People are going to get lost in this process – people like auto workers, and coal miners, and others- mostly because they lack the education skills and/or technical skills training needed to fill the jobs that exist and will be created. Given what I see happening in the erosion of workmen’s comp laws/benefits/safety net in addition to wage stagnation – courtesy mostly of conservative state legislatures and Congress, unions may be needed more now than ever before.

        (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/08/24/half-the-jobs-in-america-pay-under-18-an-hour-can-trump-help/?)

        More and more tax dollars are being siphoned away from public education, and less and less substance is being offered to address the income divide. The focus is how to pay for yet another tax cut to the conservative donor base, Real help is not forthcoming from anyone in corporate management, so where are workers to go for help? Trump astutely played this group and they will see him for what he is (or not as is their wont). They ignore the need to prepare as best they can for the changes that are looming. The wealth divide in this nation is a problem that will be addressed, hopefully, through a democratic process, or through demands. I’d rather deal with a union than with an ad hoc group of self-styled militaristic men openly carrying weapons.

        Since it is Labor Day, let’s thank those in labor for what they did for all of us – and let us name them: Forty hour work week; overtime; workmen’s comp; greater gender workplace parity (a work in progress); paid vacation; health benefits; workplace safety; paid holidays (uh hum, today?); educational and skills training opportunities, and, so much more. It is important that these benefits be listed because the younger generations take them for granted, not knowing or appreciating how they were fought for and attained – mostly by union efforts.

        By all means lets listen to our workers. Heck, let’s listen to our women? Our people of color. But then let’s act on what we hear. They’ve been waiting too long.

      2. >] “Since it is Labor Day, let’s thank those in labor for what they did for all of us – and let us name them: Forty hour work week; overtime; workmen’s comp; greater gender workplace parity (a work in progress); paid vacation; health benefits; workplace safety; paid holidays (uh hum, today?); educational and skills training opportunities, and, so much more. It is important that these benefits be listed because the younger generations take them for granted, not knowing or appreciating how they were fought for and attained – mostly by union efforts.”

        There’s not a single benefit there that I don’t want a working-class person to have, but at the same time, we have to keep our eyes on the future. Automation and AI are going to bring the hammer down on the overwhelming majority of blue-collar jobs in America. If it can be analyzed and programmed into a robot, it will be.

        Think of the strongest, most well-funded union in the world and it won’t be able to do jack squat against automated trucks, an incoming threat that will put millions of jobs at increased risk.

        Let’s secure these benefits for all low-wage workers by passing simple laws that grant them and making sure that they’re enforced properly, but at the same time let’s not close our eyes to the revolution taking place right in front of us. We need a far more innovative economic strategy if we’re going to secure prosperity for all Americans.

    1. There are unions doing great things to interface with businesses to train workers for today’s job market. It’s been very successful here in Houston, but more of this cooperation is needed. It builds understanding, trust, and the ability to communicate needs. Chris Tomlinson, Business Editor for the Houston Chronicle did a very nice piece on this weeks ago.

      http://www.chron.com/business/columnists/tomlinson/article/Don-t-bring-back-jobs-create-new-ones-10940789.php

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