Thursday April 9 | Union Story in North Carolina

April 8, 2009 at 10:50 am | Posted in Coming Up | 6 Comments

North Carolina is the least unionized state in America. We’ll look at the history of the union movement here and at the latest piece of legislation aimed at making the state more union-friendly. The Employee Free Choice Act has friends and foes. We’re joined by people from both sides of the issue as well as a labor historian.
Guests
Marybe McMillan – Secretary-Treasurer, North Carolina State AFL/CIO
Steve Gennett – Exec. VP, Carolinas Associated General Contractors
Dr. Gary Freeze – Professor of History, Catawba College

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  1. The lack of accountability for the management of the work environment in the South needs to shift from a ‘company store model’ to a modern team building inclusive model. Both North and South Carolina construction workers and state workers are caught is a time warp of old department management systems that do little to pay attention to how management affects the medical and mental health of each worker. The main reason why there has not been a shift in management style is because it would destroy the patronage or system of nepotism that keeps in place managers who were ‘given’ their position instead of going through the application process for their jobs. There is evidence of this in many of the both state’s community colleges. Unions would add an element encouraging better fairness and promote effective modernism to the workplace which would advance North and South Carolina to a new place in the industrialized world.

  2. A guest on last week’s Black Issues Forum (a UNC-TV production) made a profound observation. Namely, management can organize all it wants to through organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and yet management doesn’t want employees to organize at all. Here in Catawba County, the local Chamber’s president has spouted some downright anti-education rhetoric, possibly even borderline propaganda, to support it’s “party” line. Stupid people keep buying it though.

  3. I listened to only a few portions of the show, so I apologize if my comments are repetitive. I am not an advocate of unions. In fact, they are possibly one of the most prominent instruments of inefficiency in our “free market” society. While some of the show’s union advocates pointed out some of the good that has come out of union representation, they failed to point out the failures that unions cause.

    While many people are extremely upset about investment bankers receiving “bonuses” despite their organizations receiving TARP funding, there has been little reported on how the unions are largely responsible for the problems with Detroit’s automobile manufacturers. GM’s (now former) CEO has been destroyed by certain members of the press as well as Congress when his and his predecessors’ biggest failure was to negotiate poorly with unions or not even attempt to get rid of them altogether.

    Due to union existence in Detroit, American auto makers were in and remain financially strangled by higher than market wages for assembly line workers, defined benefit pension programs, retiree health care as well as other constricting requirements. As a result of many of these union-demanded programs, American car makers were and are left to compete in an extremely disadvantaged position.

    Assume that GM and Toyota could produce the same exact car, and assume that from a manufacturing perspective, they were able to produce that car for the same cost; due to union-related benefits to workers, GM’s actual cost to produce that car is $4,000 to $6,000 greater than Toyota’s. This suggests that in order to break even with Toyota for producing the same car, GM would have to increase its price by $4,000 to $6,000. This is not competitive, and eventually no one would ever buy a GM if it were to continue. Instead of charging higher prices for the same car, GM has to attempt to lower costs, but it cannot lower labor costs to levels that are consistent with what foreign auto makers are paying for labor nor can they attempt to lower costs by decreasing pension benefits or retiree medical benefits.

    The Company is left to lower costs by producing lower quality cars. The Company cannot hire the best designers or engineers. The Company cannot spend as much on R&D. It cannot use the highest quality materials or build newer, higher efficiency factories in line with the competition because it (over the long term) is financially strangled by union related benefits, wages, etc.

    In short, unions have left American auto makers incapable of competing because they have tilted the playing field in favor of foreign auto makers. It is not Rick Wagoner’s fault that GM may cease to exist, it is the union’s fault.

    Another topic that we don’t hear much about is that even if GM and Chrysler go bankrupt, the government will pick up a portion of retirees and others’ pension benefits. After spending years fighting with management for greater than market wages and benefits, causing the imminent collapse of their own companies, we will foot the bill for their retirement.

    To suggest that the Carolinas should become more union friendly would put a nail in the region’s economic coffin. When speaking of auto manufacturers, what some may fail to realize is that many foreign auto makers produce their cars in the Southeast, including the Carolinas. Addtionally, other manufacturers are attracted by the idea that the Carolinas have a relative “non-union” culture, allowing the Carolinas to be competitive globally for manufacturing labor. The fall of “the Big Three” could be a big gain for our region. Eventually, demand for automobiles will increase again, and without American auto makers in the picture, demand will increase for foreign automobiles. Many of these autos are produced right here. As demand for autos increases, so will the demand for labor in the region. This could lead to increased prosperity in the Carolinas and other surrounding states. If we become more union friendly, this potential prosperity could be significantly slowed and jeopardized.

    As far as more broad global competitiveness is concerned, the U.S. should look more closely and think more reasonably about eliminating unions altogether. While many fear the continued offshoring of manufacturing jobs as economies become more global, I argue that we should stimulate the global economy and attempt to make it occur more quickly. The faster labor costs in other countries rise, the faster it becomes more attractive for manufacturers to keep operations in the U.S. Eliminating unions, minimum wage and other labor market inefficiencies is a step towards accepting the globalization of our economy and positioning American labor as a competitive force in the world.

    While one of the union advocates on the show argues that bringing unions to the Carolinas would be an advancement, in a global economy, where Carolina laborers compete with Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, Indonesian and other global laborers, becoming more accepting of unions would put our laborers at a significant disadvantage. I sincerely hope both for management teams, business owners and laborers that the Carolinas remain competitive and union free. It is in everyone’s long term best interest – just look at Detroit.

  4. Mr. Gennett’s answer to Mike’s question of whether or not five day work weeks and the like would exist without unions, which was “not easily”, tells the whole story. Case closed.

  5. Joe: If you listened to Glenda Gilmore about “The Radical Roots of Civil Rights” on CT April 6th you realize unions are stifled by a false mythology permeating many of our southern institutions. I am old enough to have known many out-migrants who got along just fine in a union environment elsewhere. I think the power addicts of business management are like any other substance abusers, that they will have to hit bottom and accept the higher power of social justice before they cease their structural violence.

    Gilmore’s account was imbalanced and incomplete, playing into the reactionary mythology of international conspiracy and outside agitators without describing the homegrown aspects of the southern labor movement. Notice how she toes the line on the UNCCHill-Yale axis?

    Also move forward to the alternative of self-employment through start-ups on April 13th and see how the mechanics of funding are way above the workers’ heads. Why can’t a cooperative group of skilled and knowledgeable workers organize and manage their own enterprise. Why is there no government funding for that? Isn’t it the same ideology that makes capitalist usury the first consideration and forbids union organizing? The problem of free trade under globalism is that no bottom of material decency and worker security can ever be established as long as they can work violence oppressed slaves somewhere else. If we could put a bottom in China and Haiti and Mexico it would be good for American workers in the medium run. Unionism is the only method I know of short of violent revolution to remedy unnecessary suffering and the wage and wealth gaps. Management can see that: They just don’t want workers to see it.

    Sorry Mike Collins if your union shop experiences have been trying. Maybe you went into the wrong line of work.

  6. unions have been declining preciptiously for the last 50 years. At their height they had about 35% of the american workforce and now they’re in the 11% range [and most of those are government employees which is a huge conflict in its own right]. This dwindling figure is simply because times have changed. Our working conditions have improved so safety is not the heart of the union’s demands, likewise our workforce are now aware that it’s not practical to spend 30 years with a company and retire with a pension. So simply put now, Unions are meant to win the most amount of money for the least amount of work. Everyone has a story about how they weren’t allowed to carry a package into a building in the northeast or flip a light switch typically very hostilely prevented. Instead they must overpay a union rep [typically more than 1] to do these things. All of this results in slowdowns in productivity and increased costs. And naturally it results in less employee choice since you cannot price your own labor in a ‘closed shop’. So it results in lower achieving workers priced too high, discourages higher achieving employees from using their full talents, and then saps competitiveness across the board when there is no threat of job less [until the unions overreach and bring the entire business down, as they’ve done to the auto industry as well as the newspaper industry, specifically the boston globe].

    still, let them walk the talk. when they decide to lean on starbucks like they do federal express then I may believe that there is no leftwing conspiracy to crush the free market via unionization. Frankly, the nation has spoken, we don’t like unions… again, note the record low membership.


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