Management, labor, unions; influences on the economic transition.

Economic cycles see management (owners, in earlier times; management in the modern age) vying with production for profits. Go back to the beginnings of the industrial age and you’ll find management firmly in control. Political moves and periodic shortages of labor provided changes that weakened the near-absolute control of management. The long term trend has seen empowerment of labor and a diminishment of the control exerted by management. The relationship between the two was changed in the past by such things as disease and war and famine; more recent changes have been based on the rise of labor organizations such as unions.

Let there be no doubt: labor unions came into being as a counter to the power and exploitation of workers by management. We’re seeing some of that again where long-term employees are tossed out with no regard for the years they’ve spent building up a company by their work. Management feels free to make such decisions because once again power has shifted to the management half of the equation.

Unions began as a way to protect workers against the excesses of management. But unions then joined together into large aggregations which were capable of exerting national political influence. What was necessary in the beginning became something that had to demand ever more in benefits for workers in order to maintain power and relevance. A single powerful union could, and frequently did, demand more for employees. Under the umbrella of cross-union agreements, where one union would refuse to cross the picket lines of another, a single union could shut down not only a company but even an industry. In some cases they demonstrated the ability to shut down the national economy by strikes that closed ports or shut down rail services. Military personnel were sometimes used to break strikes. On one occasion, President Reagan acted to destroy a union; he fired all the air traffic controllers who’d gone on strike, and made it stick.

Meantime, unions had exerted a ratcheting effect on the economy. Autoworkers would begin negotiating a new contract for more wages and benefits. During the 20th Century wages were subject to taxation and unions worked to increase benefits such as health care insurance and retirement policies. Such benefits, being not taxed, became popular. The negotiations were between a company, say Ford or perhaps GM, and the Autoworkers Union.  Negotiations  were backed by threat of a strike, and inevitably workers received more in wages and benefits and prices of the product would rise to reflect the new cost structure. Prices would go up on autos, and steelworkers and other unions producing the materials that supported auto manufacturing would also see price raises as their unions demanded more in wages and benefits. And soon it would result in a slight but recognizable rise in prices and compensation across the national economy.  At some point even the national minimum wage would rise.

Unions needed to always demand more. By the late 20th Century, unions had the status of medium-sized corporations. They paid their top leadership salaries in the hundreds of thousands and donated millions to political campaigns. Dues paying members expected that the union would always provide raises in the next series of contract negotiations as well as protection from arbitrary decisions by management. A citation is appropriate here: Largest unions pay leaders well, give extensively to Democrats. The citation is from the Wall Street Journal, March 30, 2011.

A long term trend thus came to fruition. Management used their money and influence to gain power in politics; labor gained influence and power through money and the ability of union management to influence the voting patterns of members.

The economic result of the union vs management contest was to slowly raise prices in the US. The American national economy thus became considerably higher in nominal value, compared to Asian economies and even the economies of Eastern Europe. Foreign governments often resisted raising their own monetary system to true parity, because the differences acted to encourage export versus imports in their domestic economy.  The result of this was to effectively price many American products out of world markets.

Still, the American market was the largest in the world. As American products became more expensive, Asian and European products became relatively cheaper and so gained a long-term competitive advantage in the American market. At the same time, transportation costs were dropping worldwide. Larger ships, fewer crewmen, containerized shipments, computer routing, ever more efficient (and thus cheaper) ports…add this to low labor costs and a new paradigm became possible.

Management regained the advantage. Managers now had the option of evading union demands by simply bypassing the union. A number of strategies were employed in this effort. Outsourcing was one of the easiest; a company could avoid paying higher union wages to janitors and maintenance workers, for example, by laying off employees and contracting with another company to provide the services. There would no longer be any requirement to provide benefits, and usually even labor costs would be reduced. This was a win for management; but those well paid janitors and maintenance workers no longer got salaries that put them in the middle class. They had less disposable income and sometimes not even enough income to sustain mortgage payments or buy items such as new cars. Or even send their children to college. The prospective student thus needed loans to finance education, and paying back those loans in time removed the student from the consumer society for long periods. What went to banks and lending institutions wasn’t available for a house or a new car, or for health insurance or savings.

Offshoring was another option for management. While Boeing was working to move a plant from Washington (a state with union work rules) to South Carolina (a ‘right-to-work’ state, where union power was much reduced), other plants simply closed. Workers lost jobs. The products that had formerly been made by American workers were now being made offshore by workers in various countries: Ireland for a time, then Eastern Europe, and finally in Asia. American companies changed from manufacturers to importers. The goods still came in, but now profits were higher than ever and there was no need to share them with production employees. There was no need to worry about the well-being of foreign workers or rules regarding pollution of the environment. That was the problem of the manufacturing company and the government of the nation where the plants were located.

And management had no reason to consider that they were effectively destroying the American economy that their prosperity depended on. Profits to management was up; the middle class that drove the consumer market shrank. Upper middle class was forced down, and lower middle class became part of a swelling impoverished class.

And unemployment began to rise. As economies contracted, unemployment rose above 10% (and in some Western nations such as Spain and Greece, it went above 25%; Depression levels, in other words). Unemployed workers couldn’t buy; management sequestered much of their swollen income in investments which effectively removed their money from circulation.  Sales dropped across the board.  Bank foreclosures began to rise. Financialization, a major trend in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, even took a hit as subprime loans were exposed as the junk they’d always been. Banks lost billions.

Unions now began to recognize that they were in a weakened position. New contracts were for less money, fewer benefits. And the negotiations were no longer under threat of a strike, but were driven instead by the threat of closure of the plant and loss of all jobs.


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