Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Collective bargaining, staying competitive, and cross company solidarity

Say, for a moment, that you work for a company that's going under.  It's been on the way to going under since it got bought by new people and put under new management, new management that doesn't know how to manage.  This mismanagement has been driving the company into the ground for a while now and it's no longer a question of if the company will go out of business, but instead when.

This doesn't really bother the new management because the way executive compensation works these day's they'll get big fat paychecks when the business is shuttered.  It does bother everyone else who works for the company because they'll be out of jobs.

What might bother the new management somewhat is if they make the papers for putting the company out of business, what they could use at this point is a scapegoat.

Now, enter union negotiations.  Unions are, basically, the reason that we didn't replace slavery with "freedom in name only" because what every company wants is a way to produce whatever it they produce, or provide whatever service it is they provide, at lower cost.  The easiest way to do that is the human element, pay people less, make fewer people work longer hours, and if someone gets their arm chopped off at the job ditch them (they can't do the job anymore) and hire someone new.  So on, so forth.  Also children make excellent laborers.  They can crawl into tight spaces, they've got energy, and they're little so you can push them around without being worried about being pushed back.

Pay low enough wages, get the workers to buy from the company store, and eventually you own them.  They have to work for you in hopes of scraping together enough money to pay back the debt they owe to you.

The reason that worked is because any one worker vs. a company is a case of company wins, worker loses.  It's sort of like walking out of school.  If a single student stands up in the middle of class and says, "I'm fed up, I'm leaving," and walks out then the student is given detention, or suspended, or what have you.  If every single student in the school did it, well at my high school I seem to remember that being round about a thousand students.  You can't stick a thousand students in detention, and suspending them will shut down the entire school.  You wouldn't be punishing them you'd be giving the whole school an extra holiday.  And unlike a snow day it doesn't get tacked onto the end of the year.

That's how unions work, one shit shoveler versus the lord of the manor and you end up with a shit shoveler in the stockade.  Every single shit shoveler or potential shit shoveler vs the lord of the manor and pretty soon it starts to stink, and then you get a lord of the manor who is very concerned with what he can do to get the shit shovelers back to work.

As I said, enter union negotiations.  Tell one employee you're cutting back their pay and upping their hours and there's not much they can do about it, but with a union you're not just dealing with one employee you're dealing with everyone in that line of work, and that gives them much more leverage.  There is something they can do.  They can slap Twisted Sister in the 8-track player and say, "We're not gonna take it!" which is also known as a strike.  The company grinds to a halt, and until the two sides agree no one gets paid.

But think back to the beginning, this is a company that's about to go under anyway and the people in charge are looking for a scapegoat.  They want a strike because then the headlines wont read that they killed the company, they'll read that the union did.

From a management perspective the best thing they can do is offer the union a shitty deal in an attempt to induce a strike.  If they get a strike then they blame the company's demise on the union, if they don't get a strike... well that's when things get interesting.

If they don't get a strike then it means that the union agreed to the shitty contract.  It's a precedent.

You see wages are negotiated based on what other people in the same business are paid.  If you want to walk in on negotiation between a postal employee's union and their management one of the first things you want to do before walking into the room is find out what UPS and FedEx are paying they're employees because it will come up in the negotiation.

If you want to walk into a negotiation between a doughnut shop's management and doughnut maker's union and understand where they're getting their numbers from, you have to find out what the other doughnut shops are paying their doughnut makers.

This cuts both ways.  The union will say that they should be paid as much as the people in the same profession who are paid more than they are because otherwise employees will just switch to the company that pays higher.

Management will insist that to stay competitive they have to pay the members of the union as little as the lowest paying competitors pay their employees because if they don't keep costs low prices will rise, sales will fall, and the company will collapse.

Staying competitive is the argument in favor of pretty much any case of arguments for "Belt tightening" that there ever is.  Have to cut back your pay to stay competitive, have to cut back your benefits to stay competitive, have to cut back your [whatever] to stay competitive.  And the way that they make the argument is to point to another company, a competitor, where the workers have it worse.

So if the union decides to take the shitty deal then all of a sudden the management, who probably has their fingers in a lot of other companies in the same area (have you looked at the boards of directors of various companies and seen the overlap?) has given every company in an even remotely related field an argument in favor of making their unions swallow shitty contracts.  "Company A is doing it and we won't be able to stay competitive unless we sink to their level."

Company A is soon to go out of business, but the union at Company B might not know that.  And that's all it takes, one other company renegotiating their contracts between when Company A's union takes the shitty deal and when Company A goes out of business, and all of a sudden the bar has been lowered.

Once Company A goes out of business, as it inevitably will, it can't be used to argue, "You have take this shitty deal so we can stay competitive," but Company B is still in business, and they took the shitty deal to so they can be used to make that argument.  And then the race to the bottom begins.

It's win-win really.  If there's a strike then they have their scapegoat, if there isn't a strike then they've just managed to lower the bar to "shitty contract" level.

Because in the end it's all connected.  If employees at UPS and FedEx suddenly accepted much worse compensation packages you can bet that the postal employees would find themselves screwed over the next time their contract came up for renegotiation.

If one union caves, it makes things that much harder for all remaining unions in that sector.

Of course, sometimes concessions are necessary to stay competitive, sometimes the workers do have to decide between a worse deal than they want and no job at all.

But that's not what I was talking about here, because that's not what's on my mind.

You know your company is going under.  You know that whether you sign the contract or not you'll soon be out of a job.  If you do you might stay employed a little bit longer and shunt some of the blame away from yourself but you'll also be harming everyone who does your job in other companies, the other companies you'll have to look for work in once your job goes away.  If you don't you'll probably become unemployed sooner, get the blame that belongs to others shoved on you, but you won't lower the bar.  You wont set a precedent that can be used against you and everyone who shares your profession in the future.

Do you sign or not?  We haven't considered the fact that "They didn't sign and so their company went under so now you have to sign otherwise our company will go under," can be used against people too which makes things more complicated and brings me back to this being a win-win for the people who failed at management.  But setting that confounding factor aside, it seems to come down to weighing between how desperate you are for even a little bit more employment, how much you care about other people and your future self who work at other companies, and how much pride you have.  Desperateness says sign.  Altruism says strike.  Pride says that you shouldn't take the blame rightfully belonging to others so sign because if you strike you'll get the blame.

Basically, when you're negotiating for the shit shoveler's guild with the lord of the soon to be collapsed manor, you don't have just yourself to take into account.  You have to consider what effects your actions will have on the neighboring shitshoveler's guilds.  One of which you may soon be a member of given that this manor is clearly on the way out.

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