Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Union Dues . . . and Don'ts

This news story, indicating that the United Auto Workers plan to go down with the ship, along with today's guest commentary in the Wall Street Journal, sent me rifling through the way back file for a column I wrote at The Colorado Springs Gazette, recounting my own youthful experiences as a card-carrying member of the UAW.

It predates the present crisis, but still stands up, I think, in terms of what it has to say about unions. And since there seems little point in re-writing what's already been written, I thought I would re-run the piece, with the reader's indulgence:

Motor City memories inform opinions on labor unions

October 16, 2005

In a former life I was a rivethead. A factory rat. A grease monkey. A card-carrying member of the United Auto Workers. My attitudes toward labor unions — attitudes that creep into my editorializing on the subject, no doubt — aren’t ivory tower, therefore, but informed by a combined two years on “the line” in Detroit while working my way through college.

I’ve been thinking more about those days lately, when I watch from a distance as the economy of my grungy hometown, the once mighty Motor City, coughs, sputters and stalls out, with no jumper cables in sight. The latest body blow is the bankruptcy of Michiganbased Delphi, the world’s biggest auto parts supplier. As part of restructuring, the company wants its 24,000 UAW workers — who earn $27 dollar an hour plus benefits — to take a pay cut.

Another Detroit icon, General Motors, which spun off Delphi as a separate entity in 1999, last week saw its stock value fall by 10 percent and credit rating reduced by Standard & Poors to BB-, to “junk” bond status in other words. Mounting losses and huge health care costs ($5.6 billion this year alone) have the company reeling.

The city’s epitaph has been written before. But Detroiters are a stubbornly optimistic lot, as they show each fall by predicting a winning season for the ne’er-do-well Lions. But the situation today looks as grim as it ever has. And unions have played a major part in that sad saga, like it or not.

Both companies are hoping to dig themselves out with the help of wage and benefit concessions from the UAW. But they shouldn’t count on it. American labor unions have a history of helping to kill the industries off which they sponge, showing less common sense than parasites in the natural world, which at least know enough not to suck the life out of the host. Symbiosis isn’t a concept unions seem to grasp, at least not until it’s too late to pull a crippled industry back from the brink.

A harsh assessment, perhaps, but one based on personal experience as a lunchbox-lugging member of the UAW. I worked at two different plants in Detroit, both of which were union shops, meaning that joining wasn’t optional. There were significant, and instructive, differences between the two.

Chevrolet Warren, where I spent a year working the second shift, was what might be called a “hard union” shop. Here the UAW, not hated “management,” seemed to run the show. The foreman was only nominally my boss; the real bosses seemed to be the full time union stewards, whose job seemed to be making sure no one was fired, punished for lack of productivity or worked very hard.

I started out as a suburban kid with a work ethic, so the foremen took advantage of it, putting me on the dirtiest and hardest jobs, while guys with more seniority pushed brooms, shuffled around and drank coffee. It wasn’t just because I was a low seniority “kid” that I got tapped for the jobs. Some of the lifers were saboteurs, who monkey-wrenched the machines when asked to produce.

When machines broke down we were sent home with pay. Many days I would clock in only to be paid and let go. Union rules meant I couldn’t be sent to work elsewhere in the plant. It happened once, but my union steward quickly had me taken off that job and sent home, with pay.

Absenteeism was rampant. Everyone knew doctors who would write an excuse for a fee. Within six months, the suburban kid with the work ethic learned the ropes enough to slip into slacker mode, like everybody else. We worked sometimes, but like highly paid sleepwalkers.

The story was different at the “soft union” shop, an independent stamping plant that did piece work for the Big Three. We were all paying UAW dues, but management ran the show, not the union stewards, and productivity was monitored and required. “Making your numbers” for the shift was expected, unless your press broke down. And when that happened, there were other presses waiting. It wasn’t slavery. But it met the definition of manual labor.

Safety systems were in place to keep appendages from being folded, spindled or mutilated when one of the two-story presses cycled inadvertently. But we cranked out a lot of bus bumpers and wheel wells, often at a reckless pace.

Two years on the line taught me a few things about unions. I saw firsthand how union attitudes and tactics, when taken to extreme, undermine productivity, accountability and the work ethic. I saw how unions coerce support for political causes. I saw how a cadre of union honchos, rather than working for a living, sponged off the union dues of those who did work. I saw that unions mirror and mimic the worst traits of the corporate interests they claim to stand against. I watched American heavy industries be shut down or off-shored, even as labor unions refused to give concessions that might have kept them competitive and alive.

This was only part of my education about unions. The disappearance of former Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa from a restaurant near where I lived suggested the criminality and corruption percolating away behind the union facade. Later in my career, while working for Citizens Against Government Waste, the longshoreman’s union sent goons to intimidate people at a Capitol Hill press conference at which maritime subsidies were criticized. I had to laugh — my “Uncle” Johnny, a former prize fighter, was an enforcer for the seafarer’s union in Brooklyn

Unions today are different, but the same. With the country’s heavy industries and manufacturing base in sharp decline, most of the growth is in government employee and teachers unions. These are a god-send to a fading union movement, because they are virtually recession proof and well insulated against competition and market pressures. That’s changing somewhat in the realm of public education, thanks to a school choice movement aimed at injecting more competition and accountability into the system. But the union response is the same — to refuse to make concessions, to change, to take the steps that are necessary to keep “host” industries on the cutting edge.

Unions were a historical necessity. At one time, they performed a valuable role. But over time they have morphed into something that crushes productivity, accountability, creativity, innovation and individuality — all the qualities American workers need if the country is to remain an economic powerhouse.

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