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American Unions Failed

It’s time for progressives to start blaming the unions.

I have been a member of IBEW and NABET during my work years, enjoying the pay and benefits won from employers both hostile to and cooperative with unions. I have worked in union politics and have fought against both corporate and union management. Unions are necessary for the protection of worker’s interests. But unions have also been remiss in their protection of workers, as recent events make painfully clear.

Think of 1948. There were no transistor radios then. No PCs. No computer-controlled engine management systems in car. Unionized workers made cars, and maintained telephone lines, and produced the radio and television shows that unionized families enjoyed after long, productive workdays. Unionized school teachers taught in well-funded schools that were a model for emerging nations.

In each contract cycle, unions sought higher wages, better retirement benefits, and better health care. Life was good. Workers had good incomes and businesses prospered as workers spent their good incomes to buy nice lifestyles.

The transistor was invented in 1948. Within a few short decades, the transistor did for industry what Gutenberg’s movable type did for communications in the 15th century. When Gutenberg introduced movable type, he ended the Catholic Church’s monopoly on education in Europe. Until printing made books available to readers, there had been little need for people to learn to read or write. Even kings and princes were mostly illiterate and relied on their servant class of churchmen to create and maintain official documents and accounts. That system, and the hand-copying necessitated by it, gave rise to the magnificently illuminated manuscripts now lovingly kept in museums around the world.

Movable type empowered colonial expansion and laid the groundwork for the industrial revolution. Before movable type, no company could give multiple suppliers with exact copies of parts drawings and specifications for competitive bidding and sourcing identical parts to be used on the assembly line. Before movable type, the skills of expert mechanics and craftsmen could not be documented in writing and then taught to tens of thousands of students in classrooms far from the expert’s shop.

Gutenberg’s printing revolution made it possible for the British Navy to standardize charts and to teach scores of young boys the plotting and record keeping skills to sail ships exactly where the government wanted them, when the government wanted, despite the vagaries of weather and currents. Gutenberg’s printing revolution made it possible for Minister Cotton Mather to publish the results of his experiments in defeating smallpox epidemics in colonial Boston, so that smallpox could be defeated around the world. Gutenberg’s printing revolution made it possible for ministers everywhere to challenge the doctrines of the Catholic Church and develop a multitude of sects to squabble over doctrine and shares of parishioners’ tithes.

The greatest beneficiaries of movable type were businessmen and their customers. Movable type made it possible for businessmen to keep accurate accounts, and to form and exchange contracts, invoices, bills of lading, inventories and all the other documents that made the East India Company and others like it possible. Movable type made it possible for businesses to plan more efficiently, to compete more efficiently, to expand the range of their businesses, to offer more products at higher qualities.

Businessmen saw that movable type meant more profit for them. They pressed for public schools, to teach people to read and write – not wanting to have to pay for the education of their future workforce. Crafts guilds were less enthusiastic. They saw no immediate benefit in technology that would threaten their strangle hold on specialized skills. They saw no advantage in spending tax money on schools that would graduate students who would then benefit businessmen.

When the transistor came along, it guaranteed changes no less revolutionary than those wrought by the printing press. Tubes consume energy and take up lots of space. The circuits in a single iPod would fill the space of a common bedroom if built with tubes, and generate so much heat that they would burn down that bedroom.

When transistors made circuits smaller, more energy efficient and cheaper to build, circuits could become more complex. Transistors made possible the development of computers that allowed scientists to study molecular structures, building ever smaller circuits, eventually putting millions of transistors on a single chip that was smaller than the socket that once held a single tube. Such chips gave us computers that study the body and evolved medicines that have changed healthcare around the world.

Such computers gave us the satellites which let us watch Olympic athletes in Beijing or London, and the civil wars in Guatemala, Afghanistan, Syria and Mali. Such computers gave us GPS displays in our cars. But those GPS displays are not built by union workers in our U.S. car plants or anywhere in the U.S.

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Just as it was clear to businessmen in the 17th century that printing and universal education would create fabulous new opportunities in the future, for those who had the knowledge to use the new technology, it was clear to many in the 1950s and 1960s that transistors would open fabulous new frontiers for those who learned about the new electronics world.

But just as buggy whip makers saw no reason to take notice of the emerging “horseless carriages,” unions saw no reason to take notice of the transistor. A union’s purpose is to work for the benefit of its members. In the United States, this has meant that unions mimic the worst of business practices, focusing only on short term advantage while ignoring long term trends or opportunities.

Transistors and other modern technologies make it possible to build safety equipment to protect workers in hazardous jobs. But as we have learned from recent disasters, unions have been complicit with corporations in helping workers defeat mine safety equipment, just to earn a few more dollars.

While sharing the wealth of cost-plus Pentagon contracts, unions joined in the corporate abandonment of the electronics industry, letting Asian workers develop and build the new higher quality stereos, TVs and appliances that fill every American home. Unions had no interest in pressing for schools or education programs that would teach current workers or their children to prepare for workplace changes that were made inevitable by evolving technology.

Union leaders promised their members maximum payment now, with no thought to the future, just as lucrative, uncompetitive Pentagon contracts led corporate leaders to promise stockholders maximum immediate dividends, with no thought to the future.

It doesn’t have to be this way. One reason that Audi, BMW, Mercedes and VW cars are so much better than American cars is that German unionized workers participate in product planning, design, and in the administration of factories that make German cars. In Europe and Asia, workers are given the opportunity, and sometimes the duty, to go to school, to learn new technologies – to prepare for their futures.

This year, we are learning of another way in which shortsightedness has cost union workers. Around the country, corporations and cities are going bankrupt and blaming their problems on “unfunded pensions.” Workers are being deprived of pension and health plans that they thought they had been contributing to for years.

What really happened was that unions bargained for better benefits in exchange for slightly lower wages. But then the unions didn’t require that the benefits actually be provided. Instead of funding the pensions that they had agreed to provide, corporations took the money and spent it on executive pay and bonuses, and sometimes on dividends. Unions did not negotiate contracts that required payment into pension plans to fund them, and let the corporations account for them as “deferred” obligations.

By not demanding that companies pay for the pensions they had agreed to, unions allowed corporations to give the pension money to executives and shareholders, with no concern for what future problems were building for the workers whose pensions were “unfunded”.

This problem took decades to build, and the devastation to now retiring union workers, who will lose even social security and medicare, if Romney gets elected, will last for decades. But unions could act now to begin to head off disaster for workers with years left on their careers. Unions could start to negotiate contracts that required payment now for benefits that are promised. Unions could negotiate contracts that do not allow companies to mismanage pension plans or loot them for the benefit of executive bonuses, but instead put pension funds in independent, supervised accounts.

Will unions take such steps to protect their workers? Will they begin to look to the future as they have never done before? It is time for progressives to blame unions for their past shortsightedness. It is time for progressives to point to unions who care for their workers’ future lives as much as for their present income, and to say, we can do that here. We must do that here. Our union members deserve no less.

Tom Hall

Tom Hall

Posted: Wednesday, 8 August 2012