Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Why organizing VW went down in flames:

Last month, the United Auto Workers (UAW) attempted to organize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The union failed. Media reports of organized labor’s demise have followed, with the debate divided between one camp that views the labor movement as beyond-resuscitation dead, and another that views the patient on life-support with only a slim chance of survival.

Perhaps there is no turning back. But the fight in Tennessee doesn’t really tell us much one way or the other, despite all the hyperbole surrounding the lead-up to the vote. ...

What then is the real lesson of Chattanooga? The campaign illustrates how labor law disadvantages unions trying to make inroads across industry after industry in today’s economy. ... To remain relevant, unions must find success in the fast-growing occupations of our increasingly service-dominated economy. This means occupations like home health care aides (a rare bright spot for organized labor in some states), retail workers, fast-food employees, and customer support specialists. And last month’s struggle in the South makes clear what an uphill battle union expansion will be absent significant changes in the laws governing collective bargaining. ...

I've been in the union organizing game for a while now, and here's what I've figured out:

The movie business is an anomaly. Outside of the public sector, it's about the only American industrial area that remains highly unionized. In some ways this is a fluke of history; American movies and television shows haven't had (until now) stiff competition from overseas, and in fact, American movies and television shows have been major export items for the United States. By dominating foreign suppliers, American entertainment has remained robust ... and as a result union contracts in Movie/TV-land have continued in place.

What's the one part of movies/tv that isn't unionized? The part that wasn't invented when unions were dominant: CGI visual effects. This isn't, I don't think, accidental.

I'm (relatively) optimistic about the movie/entertainment business remaining union for the foreseeable future. But for the next five to ten years, I'm pessimistic about unions organizing everything else. The article linked above gives some reasons:

[During the UAW organizing drive of Volkswagen], Tennessee state legislators warned darkly about cutting future state subsidies should the workers vote the union in – effectively threatening future jobs for their constituents should the union win. As Harvard Law Professor Benjamin Sachs has written, “conditioning the availability of tax incentives on VW’s union status would in all likelihood be preempted by federal labor law, and therefore illegal.” Senator Bob Corker went further, claiming he had evidence that Volkswagen would expand its Tennessee plant’s product lines if the workers voted down the union (the company strenuously denied the claim). ...

Why do Corker and his anti-union colleagues feel free to offer expressly illegal advice – and issue illegal threats – to a private corporation? Because they don’t fear the consequences. This exemplifies the atrophied state of U.S. labor law today, where lawmakers freely flout the law, and demonstrates the long odds labor faces even in the rare case when management remains neutral during an organizing campaign. Would the outcome of the vote have been different if lawmakers actually supported the laws they are elected to uphold? ...

As any grizzled organizer will tell you, companies threaten employees during unionization drives all the time, and they do it despite federal laws that protect employees from retaliation or termination because of their organizing activities. (News flash: Having laws that are unenforced are like having no laws at all!) Corporations do this with an impunity that would have been unthinkable forty or fifty or sixty-five years ago, but then, the company-union playing field has changed. It really ain't even a playing field anymore. It's a steep slope on the side of Mount Everest, with conglomerates holding record profits and private-sector unions clinging to the cliff-edge. (The reason the IATSE and TAG still have organizing successes is due to leverage, not the law. There are enough unionized jobs in television and movies that non-union employees can achieve union contracts despite lax enforcement of laws.)

But history is an ever-flowing river, and as the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen, as private jets and gated communities proliferate and the population that lives paycheck to paycheck continues to grow, the citizenry will become more and more restless. It happened in the 1930s and 1890s, it happened in 18th century France and 20th century Czarist Russian. It happens today in Thailand, the Ukraine, and Egypt (to name a few countries with big disparities between the rich and working poor.)

Where there are yawning canyons between wealth and poverty, people get ticked off ... and then, more often than not, take action. The results are often unpretty, which is why I can never understand why billionaires so often push back ferociously against structural reforms that would preserve much of their wealth but give working stiffs a leg up. "Single payer health care? Forget it! Bigger Social Security checks? You're crazy!"

Sadly, it's part of human nature to look no further than the fence post a hundred yards down the road. The long-term history lessons provided by Czar Nicholas and King Louis are never fully learned, particularly by the rich. They're too busy accumulating the next billion to recognize that the angry mob gathering at the foot of the hill intends to take all that lovely money away.


Celshader said...

I don't think VW expected the unionization of its new factory to fail.

"Volkswagen's top labor representative threatened on Wednesday to try to block further investments by the German carmaker in the southern United States if its workers there are not unionized." -- Reuters

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