An old friend and I had a brief exchange of thoughts on Facebook in the last few days. It revolved around an article that concluded that there is an income inequality in the country that is due to the decline of labor unions, the rise of Wall Street, and our educational system.
My argument back was, “…decline of unions and rise of wall street are symptoms not causes. The cause being a fundamental shift in our industrial base away from dangerous and labor intensive jobs to more service sector”.
Thinking about this more over the weekend, I came to realize that there is a problem with the premise itself. Income equality across different job roles in the same corporation or industry is not achievable. By achieving it you windup with a model that is more like the Soviet Union, where the incentive for quality and efficiency is not there. As a result from the top of the factory down, there is little to no effective leadership or tools for leadership to motivate employees. When you take a look at the recent issues in the US automotive industry, I find that unions were one of the significant contributing factors to the inability of GM, and Chrysler to effectively compete in the market place. When a line workers are making six figure salaries, and getting a significant benefit package on top of things there is very little room for profitability to support innovation. In turn innovation is stymied by the entrenched union rules, and negotiating tactics.
Another example that is recently rearing it’s head is tenure in academic institutions. Once a faculty member achieves that “tenured” status, there is typically a downturn in productivity. Less real world research is done, less passion is shown for the job.
I am sure that there is an entire doctoral dissertation in this topic if someone was interested in diving into it. So, let’s take a different angle on things for a moment (or ten). Below is a very cool piece of news reel footage showing the construction of a Wellington Bomber. I know, it was a different time, in different circumstances. Watch the video, and see what kind of differences you notice from a 21rst Century (or late 20th Century) workforce / conditions. I’ll wait.
Here are some of the things that struck me.
- Hand tools. For the most part there are no pnuematic or hydraulic wrenches or riveters in evidence. Even the sewing was done by hand.
- No Saftey equipment. No gloves, no hard hats, and they were applying fabric dope with no respirators and apparently no added ventilation (fans etc).
- Did you see how most of the pieces were moved before they became assemblies? I saw overhead cranes for the heavy parts (wings and engines) and one tractor to tow the finished unit to testing.
- Quality. The component parts fit. They weren’t hammered or force fit, or trimmed in place. They just went together.
- Take a look at all of the workers. Where do you see an individual that is unfit? This is an interesting observation and one that as pear shaped as I am right now, I was surprised that I made. But, it reflects some comments that I have heard from folks returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. Folks in the 21rst century United States are typically fat bodies. And I think that ties back to the fact that we have forgotten how to work. In many cases, I credit the fact that we have forgotten to how to work back to the unions gaining too much for their members, too quickly.
And so we come back to the natural rhythm of life. Ebb and flow. Typical sine wave. There was a time where unions were vital to the development of western industrial culture. Combinations of technology, ecological awareness, union strength (safety, wages, and benefits), and (to some degree) government intervention have combined to overwhelm the ability of a global businesses to efficiently operate traditional manufacturing operations in the United States, and are showing signs of doing the same to service based operations as well.
As my friend Kevin said, “I guess the question is what to do about it”. For that I don’t have the answers, finding the dampening factor for that sine wave is pure guess work when you are talking about the variables in the global economy. But you have to start somewhere, and maybe that somewhere is looking at where the government has enacted laws that impact the efficiencies of industry and determining if they are benefiting anyone.
Take another look at where unions are successful and where they are detrimental and perhaps suspend them for a decade in certain industries. Then reevaluate. There are some pretty successful non-union automotive companies out there.
Get back to teaching the basic concepts to our children that work is necessary. Let’s take food as an example for this. My kids know food as going to the grocery store, and running a plastic card through a machine. Hunting, growing, raising chickens, goats, cows… it all takes work. Having Food = Working for it (cash or crops). Market based economies are run on a cycle that is derived from the work of individuals.
Enough of the random rant… let me leave you with one of my favorite clips to ponder. It’s a little long but it is really good. I hope you enjoy it.
Of course I could be utterly wrong.