Unions for the 21st century

This month’s Mother Jones has a piece by Kevin Drum grappling with what the middle class will have to protect its interests if unions become a thing of the past. I’ve only skimmed it, but have been thinking more about labor issues after a conversation with a friend today about why you don’t see much unionization of corporate America, where there are lots and lots of middle-class, rank-and-file employees.

I think to start to tackle the white-collar labor problem, you have to first understand what old American industrial management was really like. For me, it wasn’t until I did some reading about my local auto plant that this sunk in. The management of the Big 3 automakers, and I assume most other industries, almost literally saw their employees as machines, brainless beasts of burden who couldn’t do much more in life than what their employer asked of them. Management functioned as their overlords in ways that went beyond mere corporate hierarchy; managers ate in separate cafeterias and did as much as they could to hermetically seal themselves off from the brutes on the factory floor. This is why Toyota was so effective when it started manufacturing in the US in the early 1980s despite insisting on weaker unions. It turned out that simply treating workers like human beings went a long way toward earning worker loyalty. Even if you didn’t give them the explicit protections of a union contract, if you managed truly benevolently, your workers would be happier and do better jobs for you.

America’s transition to a service-led economy has had decidedly mixed results for labor. On the one hand, for all its flaws, much of the modern service sector seems a step up in terms of human dignity in comparison to industrial manufacturing. But embedded in this improvement is a hole card for management: because your average white-collar private sector worker often gets to perform a diverse variety of tasks and isn’t physically, socially and intellectually estranged from his or her management, it’s much easier to walk all over them economically if management feels like doing so. Any future attempts to level the playing field for private sector workers need to first figure out how to negotiate the less overtly adversarial and dehumanizing style that defines modern management.


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