On Wednesday, February 15, nearly 3,000 production workers at Boeing’s sprawling North Charleston, South Carolina, manufacturing plant began voting on whether or not to join the IAMAW (International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers). It’s a critical vote, a landmark vote, and, considering what’s at stake, a daunting undertaking.
A gambler friend reported that Las Vegas odds-makers have already made union affiliation a prohibitive long-shot. Yes, you can bet on stuff like this in Vegas. Unlike straight-ahead sports wagers, these “proposition bets” (“prop bets”), allow you to bet on practically anything—from whether it will rain on Easter Sunday, to what the British royal family will name their kids, to who will win the Oscar.
By now everyone knows that the Deep South—the former Confederate States of America—for a multitude of reasons (not all of which, in truth, are totally reactionary), is hostile to organized labor, and that North and South Carolina remain two of Dixie’s most virulent anti-union states. North Carolina has a 3% union density; South Carolina’s is 1.6%. According to the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), only about 52,000 South Carolina workers belong to a union.
As South Carolina’s governor Nikki Haley (Trump’s newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations) said in a 2012 recruiting speech to prospective businesses seeking to locate in her state, “We’ll make the unions understand full well that they are not needed, not wanted, and not welcome in the state of South Carolina.” Well said, Governor.
Not to dwell on the American South’s lack of progressivism, but substitute the word “desegregation” for “unions,” and you have a snapshot of the South prior to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Indeed, I can still hear George Wallace intone the phrase, “the mongrelizaton of the white race,” and I swear, it still makes my skin crawl.
But whether the IAMAW wins the certification vote or not (and, again, almost everyone expects them to lose), there’s something that absolutely, positively unnerves organized labor people. It drives us nuts.
What I’m referring to is the phenomenon of the “free rider.” A free rider is a non-union worker who earns close to a union wage, receives close to union benefits, and works in an environment close to what a union shop provides in regard to safety and comfort, and yet gets all of this for “free.” All of these perks are provided him without requiring he join the union that provides them.
It’s not uncommon for companies who don’t want their workers to join a union (usually out of fear that they will, in common HR parlance, morph into a bunch of “jailhouse lawyers”) to provide these employees with all the union goodies necessary to keep them from joining up. Workers aren’t stupid. They realize that the leverage placed at their disposal resembles nothing so much as a form of extortion. (“Here’s the bottom line, boss. If you don’t pay us close to a union wage, we’ll have no choice but to join a union.” Ouch.)
But what these freeloaders are either too ignorant or too stubborn to acknowledge is that without the presence of organized labor, they would be at the company’s mercy. Indeed, given that the words “free market” have become the mating call of lemon-sucking Republicans and masturbatory libertarians, if labor unions vanished altogether, workers would find themselves in economic free-fall. They would go from “real leverage” to “zero leverage.”
So before these non-union South Carolinian Boeing workers congratulate themselves on their self-reliance and old-fashioned American “individualism,” they need to realize that without the presence of organized labor acting as their de facto accomplice, they would be one step away from “respectable poverty.”