Wednesday, September 26, 2007

From Point A to Point B (and how we got there)

(Note: Sometimes one writes, not to solve a problem, but to attempt to state the circumstances fairly. Once a matter is presented even-handedly, it sometimes becomes easier to consider solutions. - MR)
As I write this, the United Auto Workers, one of the few major unions left in the United States, is on strike against General Motors, one of its largest corporations. I'm not taking sides in the dispute, nor am I making any predictions about how long the strike will last. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of more expert voices across the Blogosphere who have opinions on all of that. But the situation got me thinking of deeper issues [Not that I'm any more an expert on them, but I haven't seen them addressed before].
The rise of unions in the US was paralleled by the rise of industry. Small companies either grew or were absorbed into larger ones. These new giant corporations needed capital to expand. They sold stock or borrowed money to finance the new growth. Those who put up the money for this expansion, understandably, expected some kind of return on their investments. Companies were placed in the box they remain in today; a need to find competent workers, balanced against the necessity of keeping operating costs low, so as to return an acceptable profit to investors. As this happened, it became more difficult for individual workers to protect basic safety and security rights. Unions arose to give workers rights by collective negotiation that they would not have had dealing with employers individually. (In a way, it also made things easier for Big Business, as they were creating one standard agreement with thousands of workers at the same time. They could then set up cost projections for the length of the contract based on a predictable figure for wages and other benefits.)
The result of generations of such negotiations was, on one hand, an envied standard of living for the American workforce and, on the other, the need to charge more and more for goods to help make up the increased costs for labor. In an effort to reduce some of those costs, corporations began to manufacture more parts or finished products outside the US. It made it possible for them to pay these foreign workers lower wages, based on a lower standard of living. This has led to growing concerns among American workers that their jobs will be "outsourced" and increased calls for job security at contract negotiation time. As corporations turn more and more to foreign labor, they believe they can negotiate for lower wages or benefits or, at the very least, unchanged compensation for work. (There are other tools Big Business uses, such as offering special compensation for employees who agree not to unionize their workplaces, but that is not within the scope of this article.)
As the UAW-GM strike continues, workers in manufacturing plants that sell goods to GM are beginning to feel the pinch through layoffs. While the strike goes on, factories in other countries will soon fall silent. A pebble that drops in one place may cause an earthquake in another...
I wish I knew an answer for all of this, but I confess I don't. Some people have proposed Socialism, or even Communism, as a solution to the ills of American Capitalism, but years of failed attempts to bring these systems to the forefront prove that this nation will not accept them. Some hope for enlightened leaders in the unions or business, but one man's enlightenment is another man's madness. As a non-union worker, I am frankly curious to see how matters will work themselves out.
-Mike Riley
PS: If you are reading this on September 26th, please check back tomorrow. This blog will be taking part in a BlogCatalog-sponsored effort to raise awareness on the issue of abuse. For more details, click on the "poster", or smaller "BloggersUnited" banner. - MR