Thursday, February 22, 2007

'It's a risk, rather than a right, to join a labor union'

There's a great report at written by Alec Dubro on a panel discussion organized by the Economic Policy Institute and convened in Washington today. Here are some highlights (but go read the whole thing if you can):
The leadoff hitter was probably the nation’s best-known progressive economist, New York Times columnist and Princeton professor Paul Krugman. He made two points that need to be instilled in every reader and TV news viewer, as well as every business reporter:
1. The United States is "pretty good at generating overall growth," but that doesn't translate into broad prosperity.

2. "We did not realize it until we lost unions how crucial they are to our well-being."
. . .
Audience member Ann Hoffman, formerly of the garment workers union, noted that in the 1930s and early 1940s, garment workers earned higher wages than did auto workers, "because they'd had a 30-year head start in unionization."
. . .
Tom Kochan, co-director of the Institute for Work and Employment Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed up by citing some familiar but essential facts: At least 20 percent of workers who try to organize their fellows wind up fired; that labor law in its current form is a disgrace; that at the moment, "it's a risk, rather than a right, to join a labor union." He also said that the proposed Employee Free Choice Act now in Congress, which would ease unionization, "is just a first step in encouraging productive labor-management cooperation."
. . .
The final speaker was Harley Shaiken, University of California at Berkeley professor of geography specializing in unions, trade and Latin America.
. . .
We've come a long way down from there, said Shaiken, and car makers don't think in terms of societal good any more. He said that Toyota plants in the U.S. were paying slightly above the wages negotiated by the UAW in American plants, but now that the domestic auto makers are escaping from their contracts, Toyota has a new strategy. Despite being an extremely profitable enterprise, Toyota circulated a memo, leaked to Shaiken, saying that since they don't have to contend with a vigorous UAW, they intend to "cut wages dramatically."

Nevertheless, Shaiken said that six of the 10 most efficient auto plants in the U.S are union shops—including the joint GM-Toyota plant in Fremont, California. "Competitiveness," he said, "goes beyond just cost, and cutting wages can cut productivity."
More to come on the Employee Free Choice Act.

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