Drooling on the Pillow

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Alive As You And Me 

I grew up, or at least older, in the '60s and did my share of strumming "Joe Hill" on the guitar. I lived until the age of 10 in coal mining territory and actually wrote my first play (a verse play - gad, I wish I still had a copy of that) about a miner strike. I've been a member of two different carpenter's unions, the UFCW (grocery workers), the Sheet Metal Workers International Association as well as Actors Equity, the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA. I was a Teamster, briefly, before I was kicked out for working non-union during summer vacation. I'm probably forgetting one or two.

I understand well how vital the labor movement has been in building the economic powerhouse we live in today by disciplining the labor market to account for fairness. It would be a very different and far worse world if those tough son-of-bitches hadn't fought for generations for a fair shake for the working man.

Why, then, has the labor movement dwindled in recent decades to a fraction of it's post-war membership and influence? Of course there has been push-back and management will always fight just as hard as the unions for a bigger wedge. But why, after a hundred years of concession, has management been successful?

The answer, I think, is that management has changed, while labor hasn't. Management has adapted to each change in the environment with entirely new paradigms while labor, having achieved a living wage, workplace safety regs, seniority rules, pensions and job protection, having taken the desperate, vulnerable working stiff and plunked him down in the middle class, still has a basically nineteenth century view of their role in the economy.

I'm not saying that there are no longer any issues where the labor voice needs to be heard, just that, generally, labor has achieved what it was invented for and where it does not reinvent itself for the changing world and enter into a symbiotic role with management, it generally assumes what Brandon Berg at Catallarchy calls a parasitic role. He notes the campaign by the Engineers, a New Zealand labor union to increase productivity and wonders if the labor movement is developing a labor market of its own and, if the Engineers are successful, if they will out-compete other, more traditional unions.
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