I don’t like our election process. There is little on any ballot today that is actually for the common good. Everything is backed by someone or group who stands to make a big buck, all at the cost to the “sucker” consumer. In Michigan this year we have several of these from Proposal 3 and renewable energy (backed by renewable energy companies and biomass companies, and opposed by the utilities) to Proposal 6 about the building of a new international bridge (supported by the family who owns the existing bridge, and has spent more than $31 million to keep it that way). But here I want to discuss another, Proposal 2, making Michigan effectively an eternal union state.
I will never forget the day, shortly after I arrived in Michigan as a newly hired tenure track professor (who had opted to not join the union), when a man walked into my office, closed the door and basically told me that if I did not join the union it would not matter. They would charge me union dues anyway. In other words, I had no choice.
I am from California. It, Michigan and 25 other states are not right-to-work states. A right to work state give the worker the option to join a union or not. I had the “opportunity” long ago to join a union in California. I was a cashier in a supermarket. I moved on. Not for me. I don’t like being part of the faceless many and paying for the privilege. Michigan did not give that choice, and I now belong, though this could now change. Michigan along with California is currently undergoing a possible change for unions. A ballot initiative in California would limit collective bargaining. What is this all about?
Having lived in Michigan now for over a decade I see what the damage has been on both sides. Michigan has been a bastion of unions for the past century. The automobile industry has been built on demanding (and getting) rights for its workers. Without the unions workers would be under the thumb of bosses who will find any way possible to take advantage of you, your family, and your benefits. Having no voice or union representative is happening again right now. Take a look at – the part timers – those who can’t get a full-time job because the companies don’t have to hire them full time, or pay them benefits, or pay them enough to earn their own upkeep.
Walmart is known for hiring part timers and for giving irregular schedules (and some employees have banded together to fight the injustices), as are many of the “cool” retail establishments where young people would like to work. The epitome of coolness to some is the anti-union Apple, known for paying their “geniuses” poorly. These “cool” company employees and many others are not represented by any group that will help them gain rights to a self-sufficient life. It is situations like these that made people at the beginning of the last century band together and fight for their rights.
Did it ever occur to the corporations that if they treated people decently they wouldn’t have to fight, fight, fight the unions? did it ever occur to people that maybe just maybe, something else could be dreadfully wrong with the current system?
In the part time article it states” “It’s almost like sharecropping — if you have a lot of farmers with small plots of land, they work very hard to produce in that limited amount of land,” he said. “Many part-time workers feel a real competition to work hard during their limited hours because they want to impress managers to give them more hours.” Share cropping? We HAVE come a long way.
So back to Michigan and its unions. Since Michigan became a bastion of the auto industry at the beginning of the last century the AFL-CIO became de riguer for those in the industry. There are few families in Michigan that are not in some way tied to these jobs or serving them. And the unions did the workers well for a while. The workers had high wages, health care, and pensions that equated to (get ready) more than $75 per hour (often on a high school education). Union workers make about 20% more than non-union workers. While the strong union presence and bargaining power drew many workers to the state, the balance of pay was out of whack. Today the price for a US made Big Three car has an additional $1500-2000 tacked on paying for the pensions of those more than 100,000 retired workers living “up north” or in Florida. It attracted attention.
So why would I be discussing unions? Because they got too big for their britches. They couldn’t keep in line with where America was moving and asked too much.
The result was the abandonment of Detroit. Sure, not the only reason, but a big one. When the foreign companies saw what was happening they wisely chose to move to right to work states in the south to open their plants. These states (Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee for example) had lower standards of living, lower labor costs, and were delighted to get these jobs and big industry. The right to work jobs paid hugely for these states, yet still more than $25 an hour less than in Michigan, but much more than other jobs in the area for the amount of skill required. Jobs have been disappearing in Michigan, the state that can revel in the claim that they began the recession. In 2011 union membership as a percentage was about half of 1983.
Now the talk and action has been about Michigan becoming a right to work state. This is the heart of Proposal 2. Outside of the presidential race it is being called the “most significant thing on the ballot nationally.” But instead of the unions taking the beating they are taking the
offensive against the tide of change that has happened in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio et al. In those states unions have been weakened and collective bargaining curbed. Removal of the power of collective bargaining for the worker is a disaster. Corporations that seek only to enrich their single bottom line mentality will run roughshod over the worker. If it was 47% before, it will be much more and the gap will widen.
So, that leaves me with I do not like that unions have distorted the pay scale of America and have become as greedy as any of them. I do not like that union leaders have annual salaries in the heavy 6 figures. I do not like that a worker with little education and skill makes more money and has more benefits than a college educated worker. I do not like being represented by people who do not know who I (or anyone) is – being part of the hoi polloi.
That makes me ask: Is there another way? And there is. I first read about a more sensible way to maintain workers rights and not be dependent on unions in 2010 when reading an article in Harpers (one of my favorite magazines – and probably a sure marker that I am an egghead. Oh well. :) The article is called “Consider the Germans.”
Germany has somehow managed to create a high-wage, unionized economy without shipping all its jobs abroad or creating a massive trade deficit, or any trade deficit at all….Germany is the country, out of all countries, including Communist China, in which workers have the greatest amount of control over (dare I say it) the means of production.
At its most basic the German system of workers rights comes from having worker representatives at the table, the work council and co-determined board, when decisions are made. I asked around about this idea when I was last in Germany (I go every year) and yes, this is how it works. Workers elect a representative from amongst their own to help make decisions about laying off, firing, hours, any decisions that a company would make in its operations.
The co-determined board is for large companies with a board of directors. Half of the board are chosen by the workers. Revolutionary! (and something that my school could certainly benefit from with our Board of Regents – political appointees who have little do to with our school, but I digress.) There is also much more accountability in the German business model. Workers reps can audit the books as “Cato-like guardians,” people with high moral integrity and a distaste for corruption. Workers and their bosses both have to work together and know one another, another revolutionary concept (said with much facetiousness).
Not to say it is all perfect. I think not. For example, the German unions (they still exist) do the overall wage setting, and that is uniform. If you have a job in one place, the same will be paid for the job in another. This can be a problem, as I already stated, I think we should have flexibility based on merit. This is not the case here or in Germany.
But there is more. Where are we headed with our cobbled manufacturing sector?
But with our [US] flexible labor markets we cannot develop human capital or knowledge to wean ourselves away from turning out crap and leaving the high-skill manufacturing to the Europeans. The one great comparative advantage of Germany is that it is a social democracy. Germany has its problems, and I take them seriously. But I’m also sure that German companies will lead the next industrial revolution, the “green” one, while we in the United States will merely watch.
If you haven’t been to Germany lately then you might not understand. Not only has Germany maintained its manufacturing sector (with those high quality goods) but it has taken a huge lead over the US with its investment in renewable energy. Wind turbines everywhere along with solar panels, not that it has been without its problems. The cost of German power is expected to double very soon. No worries though, the same will be happening here too. Politicians won’t talk about the costs that will be incurred with dealing with climate change, but I am not running for anything, so I can speak the unspeakable truth. Prices for power will double soon. Has to. If we don’t stop releasing the carbon from its sequestered place in the ground– life as we know it will end. Ending the release of CO2 into the atmosphere (or at least dramatically slowing it) has to be on the horizon in the next few years, the next decade, but soon at a power company near you.
So where does this leave me with Proposal 2? I do not see a choice. It is the typical non-thinking American way of on/off, true/false, non thinking decisions that do not even affect that there might be another way (Consider the German workers rights). I lose if I vote for the proposal because the problems created by the unions will not be solved, and it certainly will not help Michigan and its hopeless situation in relation to union strength and the death of the state (the only state to lose population in the last decade). Voting for Proposal 2 will change the constitution because of short term thinking and cast in stone an aging and outdated mode of equality. I lose if I vote against Proposal 2 because then the corporations will step in and smoosh what is left of workers in the state. Proposal 2 is a no-win proposal.
I propose that there is another way. It is yet another vote for me of “none of the above.” I vote we think about other ways to achieve a healthier economy for the common good.