VW Union Loss

When are workers going to wake up and start voting their economic interests. The decline in middle-class wages in the U.S. is as much the fault of the workers as it is the concerted effort of the rich to grab every penny.

I was raised in a conservative Repug household and so taught to hate unions. I was taught that unions were corrupt criminal enterprises that stole the dues and destroyed efficiency in manufacturing. Since I didn’t come from a physical labor family naturally this all made sense to me. My only brush with “real” work came from some summer jobs where I learned first hand how awful such work is and how abused the workers are, but knowing that was not my fate in life I never paid much attention.

Strangely my path to a more “liberal” POV began in my MBA program, not the usual place you’d expect the relatively privileged to develop any sympathy to working people. As I learned economics (not the Repug propaganda version) I came to see the world differently. But my required course in labor relations, naturally aimed at the management side, was where I really saw the reality of a life of labor.

In that course we had to pretend to be either the company or union side in a negotiation. I thought our team (none of whom had any blue collar background) negotiated a great deal. We did all the math (based on the contrived case data) and determined the optimal negotiating position and got most of what our analysis indicated we should get. The philosophical underpinnings was that the business had to remain economically viable but that the distribution of the productivity gains could be shared. Our labor side was reasonable and wanted the business to remain productive and profitable (don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs), but we wanted our share.

To add spice to the negotiation our grade was determined by how good a settlement we reached. The disincentive to strike (or lockout) was having to write a long and boring paper so thus we don’t just do silly (and unrealistic) posturing. So to my team’s (labor side) surprise we got the worse grade because we gave up the union shop. It turns out we’d fallen for the most obvious ploy – that is, be paid off with some short-term gains in exchange for basically losing all future bargaining rights. Our teacher said while a bunch of elite students might think we got a good deal no working man would ever give up solidarity since that is the only negotiating power, the old hang-together-or-hang-separately concept. Without the union the workers would individually be ground down.

The lesson really stuck with me. Real life is not a game. Management is trained and has the task to do everything it can get away with to reduce its costs, any way, all the time. While elite white collar workers might expect a more paternalistic point of view (highly skilled MBAs are hotly recruiting, labor is not) the point of our bad grade is to recognize that workers live in a different reality. Management will screw any individual worker and, in fact, has an obligation to do exactly that. And management, unlike a mob of workers, is well organized and has a long-term view, willing to give in fake concessions in order to gain more important longer-term gains.

So I am constantly amazed to watch labor in this country screw itself. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Workers get distracted by stupid issues and so give up the one bit of power they have. I personally think this began in the 60s as an unexpected consequence of the Vietnam war, especially when the hardhats were organized to beat up anti-war protesters. So a bunch of privileged college kids (unhappy LBJ wanted to kill them, instead of National Guard, since they were too young to vote) who would never get their hands dirty and their backs broken with hard physical labor were the strawman to get labor agitated and start the split between intellectual liberals and labor that FDR had brought together. Having a hardhat beat the crap out of you made it hard to feel any solidarity with their economic causes.

The Repugs and especially Reagan saw this. Demonize some liberal activity (like abortion or feminism as raw meat to mostly Catholic ethnic workers) to drive a wedge between the two factions. White collar students and blue collar workers could easily be driven apart over the early rightwing wedge issues: war/peace, social rights. So with the nomination of George McGovern the Democrats finally splintered and labor ever since has been losing power. Big surprise that students who were beaten up by workers wouldn’t be too sympathetic to wage demands for jobs the students would never end up doing. So by getting workers to vote their passions and anger, instead of pocketbooks, the Repugs finally broke the labor movement in the U.S.

So now after decades of declining job opportunity, reduced wages and stolen benefits, labor is seeing the consequences of not having a coalition that can fight back against the organized economic tyranny. Fine, I get that. But now what! Why does labor itself end up siding with the rich who use every trick in the book to exploit them.

Since Europe, especially Germany, is a bit more interesting in prosperity for everyone, not just a handful of billionaires (as in the U.S.) it is actually surprising that VW supported the union for its plant in the U.S. It was the Kochs and the Zells and the Perkins who brought in the outside money and union-busters to persuade workers that somehow their interests were best served, not even siding with their employers, but some abstract Repug/libertarian notion.

So my answer is simple – be careful what you wish for because you might just get it. When VW now decides it can forgo any wage increases and/or start slashing benefits for those stupid workers, they will be getting exactly what they bargained for.

Do these workers believe that somehow they’re going to get a penny’s more pay than the absolute minimum a company will pay, in times of high unemployment and few jobs, just because of rightwing talk radio? Where will all those billionaires who fought the union be when it comes time for a living wage? Or when VW decides that maybe some jobs can be cut with robots or cheap foreign labor?

I have to admire how magnificently the rich have manipulated everyone else. Creating enemies to hate (people of color) so the workers don’t notice the hand in their pocket stealing their rightful wage. And it’s not just blue collar any more. Now with hordes of college degree students working as unpaid interns the whole hollowing of the U.S. economic system is daily becoming more apparent and yet the “masses” remain ignorant, distracted by exactly the issues the propaganda masters create.

Now since I’m retired and managed to have a reasonably well paid white collar career when I was working why do I care? Just leftover liberalism or perhaps something deeper? My security and my prosperity is just as fleeting as good union wages. When all the money gets concentrated in the hands of an increasingly small few social stability (not to mention tax revenues) are just going to steadily decline and that means I’m threatened too. Even those of us who will never do physical work depend on a society where those who have no choice but that kind of work have some decent compensation.

Over and over the lessons of history apply. The rich will grab everything and deplete everyone else. Of course all that does is create eventual revolutionary conditions. But one thing I’ve learned about business, especially finance, is the incredibly short-term point of view it has – this quarter, this bonus, the commission on selling piece-of-crap securities, not on my watch will the whole thing fall apart. But fall apart is exactly what it will do.

The inevitable outcome of capitalism is the concentration of wealth (monopoly, like the latest mergers, or JPMorgan/Goldman in finance) that will corrupt and BREAK the system. Stable equilibrium is NOT what competition creates – unsustainable disequilibrium is inevitable. Finance idiots will exploit the gullible until they create their speculative bubbles that inevitably burst (and someday can’t be bailed out by a bankrupt government). But on the manufacturing side (or any production) inevitably the benefits of economic enterprise will be concentrated in such a few that everyone is in desperate shape.

FDR saved capitalism despite what the rich believed. I have no doubt another couple of decades of the Depression-era capitalism would have totally destroyed the U.S. So FDR created a coalition to spread the productivity more widely and since then the Repugs have steadily undone that. The VW vote is just one more nail in the coffin of the idea that any capitalist economic system benefits anyone but the wealthy and powerful. So if labor doesn’t wake up and PEACEFULLY get their due reward someday they’ll wake up, undoubtedly led by some demagogue, to get it with violence. The Repugs think you can fool all the people all the time but eventually they’ll steal too much and finally the “masses” will get it. Perhaps technology (and outsourcing security forces) will allow the rich, this time, to avoid the revolution, but somehow I doubt it. Especially since the rich also rip off the overseas who create the technology used to suppress the masses. Someday the knowledge workers and the physical workers will recreate their natural alliance and then it will be revolution (or maybe, again, peaceful) radical change. The rich will be surprised when they lose control, but just like the Wall Street idiots in 2008 the Ponzi scheme will collapse.

I wish workers in this country would start voting and acting on their own self-interest instead of falling for the Fox and talk radio propaganda. I don’t want the revolution but without the masses getting their share through peaceful means (solidarity so they have some bargaining power) the exploitation will continue, until it can’t anymore.


About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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