by J.M. Sylvan
American Reporter Correspondent
March 24, 2009
OVERCOMING CULTURE SHOCK
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- This year marks the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, and if he were still among the living, he would recognize the same sort of conflict that sparked the Civil War in the ongoing congressional battle over the Employee Free Choice Act.
The Civil War was in part a conflict over the rival labor systems of North and South - the slave-driven agricultural economy of the South versus the industrial economy of the North - and the fear that the Southern system would become the national norm.
Fast forward nearly 150 years, and the battle between North and South is still about labor systems - the low wage, low benefit anti-union model of the South and the higher wage, higher benefit unionized model of the North.
The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would end the ability of employers to stall union elections for years and to refuse to bargain a first contract with a new union. The act would require employers to accept the certification of a union whenever a majority of workers at a workplace signed cards saying they want a union, and would require them to negotiate and reach a first contract within 90 days. The EFCA also calls for much stiffer penalties for employers who intimidate, harass or fire workers who support unionization.
Needless to say, most of the opposition to the EFCA from Southern members of Congress. For years, the South has exploited the current loopholes in labor law to attract companies that don't want to deal with unions.
For example, there's a reason why two-thirds of "foreign" cars are built in non-union shops that are mostly in the southern United States. Japanese, Korean and German automakers are taking advantage of the South's traditional mistrust of unions and the general economic desperation of small towns that try to outbid each other to attract factories. That's why the manufacture of foreign vehicles in the U.S. has jumped 450 percent since the mid-1980s.
The gap between union and non-union autoworkers is big. At non-union shops, total wages and benefits total $26.65 per hour. For union workers, the total is $36.34 a hour, although new hires at Ford, General Motors and Chrysler earn closer to what the non-union workers do.
The health care and pension costs at the Big Three certainly play a role. General Motors supports about 400,000 retirees, while Toyota has only about 700 pensioners in the U.S. The Southern workforce is a lot younger than Detroit's.
There's not much sympathy in the South for the plight of the United Auto Workers and the Big Three. More than 35,000 new jobs have been created by the foreign automakers, while the Big Three has shed more than 600,000 jobs since 1980. But the UAW, like other unions, play a big role in keeping up pay scales for their non-union counterparts.
Toyota and Honda are trying to cut wages in their U.S. plants and have actively discouraged workers from unionizing. If the UAW's conservative Southern critics got their wish and broke the union, what are the chances that Southern workers would still make $17 an hour to build cars?
For all the public relations hype about Toyota and Honda being good employers, the reality is that given the chance, most companies prefer a docile and subservient class of workers that won't make waves and will take whatever they get and like it.
But workers want their share of the pie. They want to be paid fairly. They want to have decent health insurance and a secure retirement. They want fair treatment in the workplace. They want a safe workplace. And without organization in the workplace, it is impossible to get any of these things.
The average union worker earns 11 percent more than the average non-union worker. Only 10 percent of union workers lack health insurance, compared to 50 percent of non-union workers, and the union employees pay on average about 25 percent less for their coverage. More than 80 percent of employees working under a union contract enjoy the security of a defined benefit pension, meaning a guaranteed monthly payment for the life of the retiree. Fewer than half of non-union workers have defined benefit pensions, and considering the average 401(k) lost about 30 percent of its value in 2008, most workers are faced with grim prospects for retirement.
The numbers are clear. Union membership is usually the difference between a comfortable middle class life and a financially insecure existence. That's why union busting campaigns are so prevalent in the workplace. Enforcement of even the watered down labor laws that now exist is so weak that employers can do just about anything to stop a union drive, and get away with it.
For decades, the Southern states built their economies on union busting and cheap labor. Just as the textile mills moved out of the North in the early 20th century to take advantage of this set-up, the Japanese, German and Korean carmakers today see the South as a place where they can cut labor costs.
The former Northern model of a prosperous, unionized workforce is hanging by a thread. The Southern model has taken hold nearly everywhere in America, with lower living standards and lower public investment in health and education as a result. This second civil war may end up destroying the middle class as we know it.
longtime AR Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For extra added thrills, read his