Seriously. When I was an economics graduate student at Cornell, I was being asked to join the UAW. That’s because us poor graduate students were being exploited by agreeing to work as Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants in order to have our free tuition and continue to receive a stipend to go to school. You read that right – I went to grad school tuition free, and was paid something like $15,000 per year on top of that to attend. I’ll share more about that later. In my reading this morning I came across these two examples of what unions are often about.
1) Just a peaceful, voluntary way to improve the working conditions of its members:
As president of the United Mine Workers (UMW) union, Trumka led multiple violent strikes. Trumka’s fiery rhetoric often appeared to condone militancy and violence, especially against workers who dared to continue to provide for their families by working during a strike. As a Virginia judge ruled in 1989, “violent activities are being organized, orchestrated and encouraged by the leadership of this union.”
Take the murder of Eddie York, a nonunion contractor, who was shot in the back of the head and killed while leaving a worksite in 1993. Trumka and other UMW officials were charged in a $27 million wrongful death suit by Eddie York’s widow. After fighting the suit intensely for four years, UMW lawyers settled suddenly in 1997 — just two days after the judge in the case ruled evidence in the criminal trial would be admitted.
2) Just an example of how when workers are better represented, paid and have a stronger “voice” in labor negotiation, they are more productive and we are all better off:
The real issue is the job classifications.Ford’s UAW contract has lots of them, governing who can and who can’t perform specified tasks on the factory floor. So if a machine breaks down, an assembly line can come to a halt while everyone waits for the worker with the proper classification to arrive at the scene. If other workers nearby are perfectly capable of fixing the machine, well, that doesn’t matter. The number of job classifications is less than it was a decade ago, but it’s still far too many to maximize a factory’s efficiency.
All this begs a fundamental, and uncomfortable, question. Can a UAW-represented car company compete effectively, long term, with its nonunion competitors? At the very least, companies organized by the UAW have lots of extra costs to bear at their factories located in the U.S.
It’s interesting, then, that Consumer Reports rates the quality of the four-cylinder Ford Fusion higher than the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, and the Lincoln MKZ higher than its Acura and Lexus counterparts. The Fusion and MKZ are built in a factory without job classifications because it’s in Hermosillo, Mexico, and isn’t represented by the UAW. If Ford targets future expansion in Mexico, the recent contract vote will spell further decline for a union that, like Detroit’s car companies, badly needs cultural change.