Unions – A Tale of Two Cultures

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This past Monday, Volkswagen announced that 1,600 workers in its Chattanooga Tennessee plant will vote for a union. The United Auto Workers (UAW) is heading the effort, with the blessing of Volkswagen itself – Gasp!

A corporation supporting unionization of its workers. The horror! What’s next, the distribution of Mao’s Little Red Book to all its employees and the replacement of the iconic VW symbol with a Hammer and Scycle on all its vehicles? It’s positively un-American.

Then again, Volkswagen is not an American company.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the United States has had a love-hate relationship with unions. Most of it hate. Throughout the 19th Century, both state and federal governments little to support workers’ collective rights. And even when laws were passed, the courts often struck them down as unconstitutional. The reasoning – government had no right to interfere with commerce, and individuals had the right to negotiate their own working conditions with their employer, without being compelled to follow union rules. Even today, this attitude still exists in the twenty-four Right-to-Work states (Tennessee among them), where workers cannot be required to join a union as a condition of employment. This, individual workers are free to do as they please, sounds great in theory. But in practice, individuals have little power compared to their employers. Right-to-Work is a misnomer, a pretense for denying workers the ability to negotiate from a position of strength.

In the 1870’s and 1880’s, violence broke out as workers protested, marched and went on strike over deteriorating working conditions. Police, the military and private detectives of the Pinkerton Agency were used to crush these strikes. Workers were arrested, beaten and even killed. Union organizers were labelled anarchists because they went against what those in power saw as the natural order of things (i.e. – they had all the wealth and power because God wanted it that way).

It wasn’t until the Progressive Movement at the turn of the Twentieth Century and later, the aftermath of the Great Depression in the 1930s, that unions in America started to get some traction. They reached their height in the mid-1950s, when about a third of workers belonged to a union. Today, that number has declined to around 11 percent.

Unions and union workers are often derided in this country. Union workers are seen as privileged, protected and lazy. Unions are viewed as self-serving and corrupt. In truth, unions are neither all good or all bad. My father was a union carpenter. Early in his career, he and a friend were hanging doors. He and his friend went to work with the efficiency with which Germans are renowned. After a while, their supervisor came by, stop working so fast, he told them, we don’t want to run out of work. He saw what the attitudes of a union environment could create. Then again, he and my mother raised six children, he owned his home outright (and another house on the lake later in life), he retired at age 62, and, despite a bad heart valve due to rheumatic fever, he always had the best of health care. All thanks to the union.

I don’t always agree with unions, either. Anyone who has read my previous posts knows I prefer promotions and pay be based on merit, not seniority, as unions tend to do. I have also dealt with enough employee issues to know that some people deserve to be fired, while unions often defend their employees to the last, even when poor performance is blatant. I also know there are unions that collect union dues and give the members nothing in return, which is tantamount to extortion.

Still unions were instrumental in establishing many workplace standards – child labor, safe working conditions, the eight-hour workday – standards we take for granted, and have benefited union members and non-members alike.

Despite a shared love of cars, bratwurst and beer, Germany and the US are different cultures. As a whole, Germans are not as individualistic as Americans and there has been a long tradition of government cooperation (in the U.S. we’d call it interference) with business. While Pinkertons were busting strikers heads here in America, the newly created Germany was establishing retirement benefits, a national health care program, workers compensation and unemployment insurance. Its first Chancellor, Otto von Bismark, was a staunch conservative. Still, he understood that these programs were necessary to avoid the labor riots and strikes. As he saw it, a stable workforce was essential to a thriving economy.

Today in Germany, while the Trade Unions are nowhere as strong as they used to be (membership is at about 20 percent) they are not as stigmatized as in the US. Workers councils are established within companies and factories, which cooperate with management to help the organization be more efficient. Unlike in the US, where unions and management are constantly at odds, often to the detriment of both sides, workers councils even have a seat in the board room. It’s hard to imagine any US company giving workers a say in decisions such as shutting down a plant, layoffs, or compensation. Many managers function with the belief that employees will only make decisions that benefit themselves personally in the short run, and not make decisions based on whats best for the overall financial health of the company. Maybe that’s because all to many of them make decisions for that exact same reason.

The company I work for recently set out to better deliver service to its customers. To do this, we asked employees what they needed to make this happen. Did they bring self-serving ideas like needing raises or better chairs or ping-pong tables? No, they overwhelmingly gave real and actionable suggestions, many of which have been adopted. Workers want to do a good job, and when given a chance to provide input, they rarely disappoint.

Is the German system perfect? Hardly. Like any system, you’ll find problems and complaints, many similar to the ones we hear about unions in the U.S. But fostering a partnership between workers and employers has benefits to both sides. Volkswagen has experienced this firsthand in its plants throughout the world and would like the same to happen in Chattanooga.

So, if Volkswagen is not standing in the way of the union, who is? The governor of Tennessee, for one, who fears that it will hurt Tennessee’s competitiveness with other states if companies see it as a place friendly to unions. Other corporate giants (such as the infamous Koch Brothers) for another, who see unions as a threat to their own wealth and power.

Thrown into this mix are the workers themselves, who next week will make their own decision about what type of work environment they want. Which in a democracy, is as it should be.

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