Saturday, January 12, 2013

Union Man

Gregg Shotwell missed his calling.

He should have been a newspaper reporter--like the kind you see in old movies, with the felt hat, pad and pencil in hand, banging on the doors of City Hall looking for corruption and incompetence. Mr. Shotwell, a man of courage, is an excellent writer. Instead, he got a job at the factory and worked building automobiles for thirty years. He founded an organization called Soldiers of Solidarity (SOS), a faction within the UAW. The Union is the cause to which Mr. Shotwell has devoted his professional life.

Mr. Shotwell writes an irregular column headed Live Bait & Ammo (LB&A). He's been writing these for years, though I don't know how many years. If there is one beef I have with him, it's that he doesn't date his columns. One can only guess when they were written.

One piece can be roughly dated to 2011, two and a half years after his retirement in 2008. LB&A #164 reads like a swan song. In it he recites his biography, enumerates the benefits of the union, and then describes how the union is failing today's workers. It is not often in this blog that I say "read the whole thing," (after all, I read The Militant so you don't have to), but now is one of those times. Gregg Shotwell's cri de coeur deserves a wide audience.

Here's the opening paragraph:
I've got it made. I’m sixty-one years old and I've been retired for two and a half years. I've got a pension, health insurance, and money in the bank. I own my own home. I’m debt free. I’m a fortunate man, but it wasn't luck or talent. I had a union.
And here is how today's workers have it:
I make more money in retirement than a new hire at General Motors.
I don’t know how they expect to make it.
They are not going to make it. They will never achieve economic security. The new generation of auto workers are not destined to enjoy the standard of living my generation took for granted. This is not a recession in the classic sense of the word, it’s a downscale restructuring. The state sponsored attack on collective bargaining is the final phase of the new New Deal.

Frankly, it is simply heartrending. Mr. Shotwell vividly describes how middle class workers are being reduced to poverty, and that nobody seems to care. His use of the phrase "downside restructuring" is apt, for that is exactly what it is. In the modern economy labor is devalued.

Republicans, especially, need to read this paragraph, which shows just how unhelpful Romney's comments about the 47% were.
When it comes to labor costs there is no bottom to the bottom line. We could work for free and the masters would complain about the cost of food, shelter, and clothing. When the mechanical cotton picker made labor obsolete in the South, workers were kicked off the land and accused of freeloading. It’s not enough for the owners to deprive workers of gainful employment, they must shame them in the bargain. We hear the same refrain today in legislatures where unemployment benefits are cut as free trade agreements make labor obsolete and skilled trades redundant. When capital rules the land, mercy is arbitrary and retribution is absolute.
So what is the cause of this sorry state of affairs? Here Mr. Shotwell and I part company. He has absorbed enough Marxist balderdash to assume that greedy capitalists, whose primary source of profit is to squeeze more from the workers, are to blame. And then there is the UAW President, Bob King, who in Mr. Shotwell's reading is a co-conspirator with the class enemy. Mr. King, rather than stand up for workers' rights, heads what is bitingly called the "concession caucus," i.e., that group that wants a contract with the manufacturers no matter what the cost to the rank and file.

But neither Mr. King nor the greedy capitalists are at fault for the plight of today's autoworkers. Instead, the culprit is none other than me. And you, too. We, the consumers, are the real villains of the case, for we inevitably buy the best products available at the lowest possible prices. I have no hard data, but I think cars have gotten cheaper over the decades--at least as a fraction of annual income.

And while I can't vouch for a lower price, I can say without a doubt that vehicles are vastly better than they were in 1979, when Mr. Shotwell got his first auto job. This is so obvious that I don't think I need to waste words making the case. The automobile industry over the past thirty years has substantially improved my standard of living.

So better cars at lower prices--is this bad? Not for you and me, but it is bad for autoworkers. They are now forced into a competition to be the lowest cost, highest quality producer. Failing that, they simply go out of business. Mr. King understands this. He may not like it any more than Mr. Shotwell does, but it is an inexorable truth of the laws of economics. There is simply no way that today's autoworkers can have the same standard of living for which Mr. Shotwell is so grateful.

Mr. Shotwell is not the only person in his predicament. I share his sense of undeserved entitlement. I'm a professor at a state college--tenured and not too far from retirement. I can't be fired or even laid off, especially since I'm the senior person in my department. I have "rights" accorded to me by the public employee union, including cushy working conditions, generous health care, a sweet pension, "academic freedom," a nice office with a beautiful view, and so on. All of this is at tuition and taxpayer expense, and little of it is deserved.

But just as the mechanical cotton picker pushed the sharecropper off the land, and just as the robot has eliminated a large fraction of factory employment, so also will automation displace college professors. I feel very sorry for my younger colleagues. They are chasing tenure as if it meant a 30-year career like mine. It means nothing of the sort, for they, too, are going to be rendered obsolete and will be tossed to the wayside like so many useless autoworkers.

Mr. Shotwell has no solutions for these problems. A stronger union will accomplish nothing. I confess I have no solutions, either, but somehow I'm more optimistic. That's probably why I'm a Republican.

Still, I like Gregg Shotwell. I wish him a long, happy, healthy, and pleasant retirement. And keep writing, sir. Please keep writing.

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