Posted by: JanF | September 5, 2011

Labor under a false assumption

Today’s post, on the day that we observe Labor Day, makes a plea to everyone to respect the value of Working People.

On the Sunday before Labor Day in 2010, I became disgusted by yet another editorial in my local right-wing rag bashing labor (it is one of their favorite past times).

It was in the form of a letter to President Obama in anticipation of his visit to Milwaukee for LaborFest 2010.

Because, of course, why would a right-wing rag pass up a chance to bash both Labor and President Obama? The editorial page writers must have been beside themselves with glee. And the headline “Labor needs tough love”! Swoon! Or maybe starbursts!

Here are a couple more phrases from the editorial:
– The workers of the future need to be nimble
– Labor contracts will require more flexibility

Hey, why did my dog’s ears just perk up? Oh, I see now. The right-wing dog whistle bashing unions on behalf of its business interests.

Of course some would read the editorial and think: what a fine call to arms — asking business and labor to cooperate! A business and labor alliance, if you will.

A business and labor alliance. The most lopsided “relationship” since indentured servitude. Oh, wait. That’s redundant.

You would think that the Great Recession and the accompanying Great Jobs Depression would make business find ways to work together with their work force. Instead they are using it as a two by four to whack unions.

Three recent examples in Wisconsin:
Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac. “Mercury Marine Inc. will consolidate much of its Fond du Lac operations in its plant in Stillwater, Okla., after union members Sunday rejected contract concessions that would have included lower wages for new hires and employees called back from layoff. “Mercury Marine never intended for this offer to be accepted,” said IAM Midwest Territory vice president Philip Gruber. “Despite progress on every major issue and a commitment by the IAM to continue bargaining, the company balked in the final hours and added terms and conditions that assured members would reject the offer.” ”
Subzero / Wolf in Madison: “the company is asking their members to take a deep pay cut or their jobs could be moved out of state.” Earlier the company announced “it will move 100 of its nearly 500 hourly Sub-Zero jobs out of Madison to a huge, new factory in Goodyear, Ariz., over the next two years.” A company spokesman said it was “completely unrelated” to the company’s threat to shift manufacturing […] to Kentucky.”
Harley Davidson in Milwaukee: “Harley-Davidson Inc. confirmed Friday it could move its Milwaukee-area manufacturing to Kansas City, Mo., if it cannot get a labor agreement that cuts millions of dollars in local production costs.”

This is the Labor – Business Alliance: Businesses dictating the terms and holding the possibility of closing plants and moving jobs like a sword over the head of the unions.

The news is filled with stories of businesses being “unable to get concessions from unions” and being “forced” to move to other states or other countries.

The problem with these stories, generally written in newspapers controlled by businesses, is that they are always tilted towards Labor being the bad guy…a False Assumption.

I guess it is bad to want a living wage or bad to have made a choice to seek more security in exchange for lower wages…often only to have management come back and ask for more and more concessions.

I understand that times are tough. I understand that concessions are often made. But what I don’t get and will never understand is that it seems to be okay to bash unions while only whispering about the perfidy of management. In my cosmology, coercion and extortion are never okay. If it makes business sense to move your factory somewhere else, make that case and move. But if the only way you can do business is off the backs of your workers then maybe your business model is flawed. What are you paying management, what are the owners taking out of the company, are you buying your raw materials in the best place, is your marketing plan wrong…are you building a crappy product?

Full disclosure: I was a union member twice in my life. Once in the Communications Workers of America when I worked for the manufacturing unit of a the phone company and again when I was an instructor at a community college (a two-fer on the right-wing hate list – union and teacher).

Labor has real flesh (the kind that bleeds) in the game. Here is the part that is hard to deal with. Business and their media friends act as though the unions are just there to harm them and that unions have no skin in the game. They have a short memory or maybe it is just convenient to forget that workers were once killed for demanding an 8-hour work day. Of course, labor is supposed to forget the past and look gloriously to the future…of being crushed in a more dignified way. With the same end result. Crushed.

In a double steal (as baseball season winds down), I am stealing a quote from President Barack Obama in his LaborFest2010 speech in Milwaukee:

To steal a line from our old friend, Ted Kennedy: what is it about working men and women that they find so offensive?”

So what is the answer? Should the unions give in until they simply cannot support their families or the companies simply move out of the region the next year citing “further cuts”? Or declare bankruptcy?

Here is a cautionary tale. In 2002, United Airlines filed for bankruptcy casting their pilots union into the vagaries of the emergency public pension system (PBGC). The pilots had for years negotiated contracts that gave concessions on wages for more pension money. (Note: this is called “collective bargaining” by the unions, “coercion” by management). The bankruptcy judge in 2005 declared the pension fund terminated leading to largest largest corporate-pension default in American history. Of course they had the public pension plan to fall back on. One tiny problem. Pilots have to retire from flying when they turn 60 years old. Federal emergency pension plans penalize workers who claim pensions when they are not yet 65. So for every year that the pilots were forced to retire early, they took a huge cut in pension. I don’t normally cry for people who made six figure incomes but there is no planet on which this would not be considered grossly unfair.

The assumption that there is a true Business-Labor alliance is a false one and it will stay that way until business makes labor a true partner not just during the hard times but during the good times. And the best way to get to that point is for workers to join unions because together we are stronger.

From SEIU: Turn Things Around. Join a Union

(Watch to the end…the turn around is surprising)

(A version of this was originally posted on 09/07/2010 at BPI Campus)



  1. There will never be a Labor-Business alliance until business agrees that labor has value.

    It is interesting because in cost accounting there are three expense accounts that are used to calculate the cost of goods sold: material, labor and overhead. Listening to the Captains of Industry one would think that the material simply forms itself into a valuable product because of the executive bonuses and tax cuts for corporate jets which are part of overhead. 🙄

    In case you forget what Labor Day is for, from the Department of Labor web site:

    Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

    (h/t JaxDem)

  2. E.J Dionne weighs in from the Washington Post with these thoughts on Labor:

    That the [pro-labor] language of Lincoln and John Paul II is so distant from our experience today is a sign of an enormous cultural shift. In scores of different ways, we paint investors as the heroes and workers as the sideshow. We tax the fruits of labor more vigorously than we tax the gains from capital — resistance to continuing the payroll tax cut is a case in point — and we hide workers away while lavishing attention on those who make their livings by moving money around.

    He cites critic William Deresiewicz who observed, regarding novelists: “First we stopped noticing members of the working class and now we’re convinced they don’t exist.”

    People who make their livings moving money around produce nothing but wealth for themselves.

    Harold Meyerson, in another Washington Post opinion piece, declared that ‘post-industrialism’ has failed and calls for a new move towards manufacturing, something he and others call neo-industrialism.

    It makes no sense to continue when the only conclusion is that post industrialism has failed.


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