Well, he’s been dead these past thirty-six years, but John L. Lewis was a giant of a labor leader for the United Mine Workers. There seem to be no such giants today, they’re all bean-counters and politicos and the huge argument that’s splitting the Service Employees and Truckers away from the AFL/CIO is mostly about beans and politics. Unionization is taking a hit, probably because it deserves one. Lewis came out of his corner swinging because mine workers were in the poorest paying and most dangerous jobs in the country. They had issues. For the most part, union workers today enjoy wages, hours, pensions and job security that are unprecedented and put them on top of the world, worker-wise.
The top of the world leaves no room to go up anymore. The top of the world is driving business off-shore and companies such as General Motors into bankruptcy. Labor is disintegrating because the model that built it was inferior wages and lousy working conditions and that model no longer (or barely) exists.
Labor and the union movement will change as business conditions change or it will die.
Recent negotiations with the airlines are an elegant case in point, with labor concessions coming so late and so grudgingly that major carriers were forced to seek the protection of the bankruptcy courts. And so, on this last day of July, storm-clouds are gathering over what’s left of the union movement, begun a hundred years ago in Chicago with the birth of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World). Fitting that its rending is a Chicago event as well. The IWW still exists, gone from street-battles with industry-backed goons to its current “call in day to Starbucks” and I guess that says it all. John L. Lewis wouldn’t have thought much of calling in to Starbucks.
There is only one equitable place left for union representation and that is on the boards of directors of the companies whose workers they represent. Labor and management can no longer afford to stand at odds with one another. A win for one can no longer be a loss for the other. The new paradigm is creative partnerships that allow business and industry to thrive and make labor a shareholder, as wooed as Wall Street, as valuable to growth as the quarterly uptick.
If creative partnership is too much a buzzword, forgive me that. Labor has always known what is wrong with the mechanism, be it on the factory floor or the crowded cubicles where computer programs rule the workday. You want to know why things don’t work, why profits are so elusive, why absenteeism and burnout are costing more than raw materials? Ask at the bottom. You want to know why job satisfaction is so poor that only wages keep the boat afloat? Send the consultants home and ask at the bottom. The bottom is where truth lies and profit can yet be mined.
If it is possible (and it is if anyone cares) to bring the wisdom of the bottom to the board room, then all things are possible, none of them confrontational. If it is possible (and it is if anyone cares) to expand the ‘quality-circle’ to a diameter that includes the very top of management, then there is hope for a reversal of off-shoring. Then there is a case for unions to grow once more because they will find themselves with a relevant issue and a powerful incentive to profit. Look at John L’s picture and realize you’re looking back fifty years. There hasn’t been a truly relevant issue in all that time.
But there is now, if the split-off unions have sense enough to see it.