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October 14, 2003

Reflections on Unions & Strikes

Several major supermarket chains are in the middle of a strike. Folks have asked me to support the pickets. So I've been thinking..

The existence of organized labor is proof of poor management, but it is also proof of commoditized labor. Proper management would never allow commodity labor to have separate tiers of benefits and pay ranges based on seniority. This is a situation that leads exactly to scab/union conflict even in the absence of a union. If Joe make 6 bucks and Jane make 8 doing the same job, there's going to be a problem. I think the union introduces this problem because it's trying to limit the labor pool. Yeah it raises salaries artificially, and you see how high when scabs take jobs for what they're really worth.

That's the status quo, and it won't be under control until management controls everything. However since the unions aren't going away, you'll always have two sets of interests trying to negotiate the proper salaries for employees, and so you'll always have these artificial tiers of salaries based on the periods between collective bargaining negotiations which has nothing to do with the market value of the labor involved.

On the other hand, the existence of unions allows management to be lazy and fail to treat employees well. Management can then look at labor as a fixed cost and arrange their profitability different ways. Over time they grow retarded HR departments and fail to develop the proper loyalty with their employees.

As for crossing picket lines, I'll do what's convenient. It's not my problem.

I was a union employee at Fedco back in the days. You came in at maybe a 25 cents above minimum wage and were on probation for 90 days before you get to be union. Believe me, lots of people worked for 89 days and we never saw them again, especially during the summer and holiday shopping season. At Fedco, we were Teamsters, and the real Teamster jobs were in the warehouse. If you drove a forklift or some such extremely technically sophisticated job, you could make 11 or 12 bucks an hour. But if you worked as a cashier or stocked the floor, you'd be around 6 or 8 bucks with maybe 3-5% annual raises. Yet if you worked at Boy's Market, whose union was the Retail Clerks, the same cashier job just 5 miles away paid 13 an hour. When you work in the union, what you get paid has nothing to do with how hard or well you work, it's all about what gets negotiated on your behalf by the union.

We struck Fedco and got strike pay of about 37 bucks a week. We closed the store. There was no picket line to break. We had a big meeting at the Shrine Auditorium in which us rank and file had an opportunity to speak. I didn't have enough seniority in the union to actually have a vote, but I did get in front of the whole crowd and embarrass myself, like the rest who went up there and cursed a blue streak. I complained that I couldn't afford a car and an apartment on my salary. They looked at me like I was an idiot. What did I expect? I was only 19 years old. Some days I think I should have gone to the Army.

From my personal experience the union owns you because the union owns your friends. There have been no experiences in my life when the relationships between myself and my co-workers have been so close as when I was at Fedco. Kevin Douglas and Mark Robinson were my boys. I still remember Clave Marks, Deborah Brown, David Ashby, Big Charles, Claude Grant the tennis player, and sneaky Angel Espin, quiet Lau Lam, irratable Wah Gee, and the Vietnam vets in the warehouse, Ward who loved Ritchie Blackmore, The Cowboy, and another man whose face I see but cannot remember his name. I also remember our opponents. Mr. Tobak, Mr. Gross, and the cabal of Japanese women including Satsu Sunoda. I remember the earnest ligaments of the business who caught hell from both sides, the supervisors whose faces stay with me but names have long faded since 1979.

After the strike was over, I can't remember getting any big raise or anything. I left Fedco after about a year and a half to go work at a bank.

Posted by mbowen at October 14, 2003 12:20 PM

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Although, I would note that the union strikes going on in California have to do with health care benefits as opposed to wage increases, for the most part.

The problem that exists is mostly because of union health care funds being in the stock market and them going for riskier stocks (like the dot coms) instead of safer bets and now those funds being in the toilet.

I'm not sure what's going to fix the problem...considering how much money I make, though, I'm not going to begrudge low wage earners for trying to improve their work conditions and benefits and won't be crossing the picket line in the near future..

The Whole Foods and Trader Joe's employees seem much happier in their non-union world.

Posted by: Jason at October 14, 2003 02:20 PM

A couple more things because I've come off this a bit more callous than I'd like, maybe that's partially because I've been unemployed for several months myself.

First, I am enormously relieved to have remembered the name of Nat Durand, though I still can't remember Ward's last name. These men, Vietnam vets taught me a lot about the dignity of common folks. I worked at Fedco after 4 years or prep school and a semester at USC in the electrical engineering program. I wasn't predisposed to dealing with the blue collar world. Part of my not being liberally charitable to them was that I know they're not helpless or stupid.

fwiw, We haven't shopped normally in a while. This morning I got a gallon of milk from 7-11. There was no 2% left and the place was packed. One of the friends of the family is a controller at Kroger and his wife was telling the spousal unit she'd be a scab in a minute. The wife couldn't imagine crossing the picket to be a scab so even though we need the money, she won't do it, but if this strike would have happened two weeks ago, you'd be talking with scab number one.

I'm sympathetic to union workers but I wouldn't want to be one for the reasons I described. It's not consumers fault that there is a labor dispute, and on top of inconvenience consumers aren't going to get anything out of this strike but smiles or dirty looks one way or the other. Can we expect the prices to go down because of this? So my response as a consumer and former union guy is mostly being glad I'm still not a union guy.

I hope that the union folks get a good deal, but the way I see it, if they are so antagonistic that they want to bust up the stores, they're only burning bridges and maintaining the cycle of antagonism. Every buck I spend at the stores in question helps the stores keep going, but I seriously doubt the amount of revenue the store makes during the strike will be a material consideration in what health-plan the union gets or does not. Negotiations are closed, even to the rank and file. If anything, the more money the stores pull in now the more there is for everyone. But I know there's no cause and effect unless the purpose of the strike is to break the back of management, not just a negotiating ploy.

I'm not in a position to make that judgement about this particular strike and I'm generally not inclined to find out on the political side. I've always been a business reformer - that's what I do professionally, help businesses make better informed decisions. I understand how one goes from a closed shop to an open one, but that would be my overall recommendation.

Bottom line is that I beleive that it's an illusion that collective bargaining agreements are as democratic as they portrayed as being. I don't trust them for the same reasons I don't generally trust privately held companies. There's not so much accountability. So while I hope for the best, I don't trust that either management or labor is doing the right thing.

Posted by: Cobb at October 14, 2003 02:50 PM