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During the mid-1980s, America’s labor unions made a critical and momentous error in judgement. Their error was trusting management. Specifically, it was buying into management’s version of the so-called New Culture—the narrative declaring that labor relations were no longer “adversarial” in nature, that union and management had finally come to their senses, that the “bad old days” of head-butting and mutual acrimony were over.
Arguably, the trajectory of organized labor’s decline can be traced to this watershed moment. Once unions were lured into believing the fairy-tale notion that working people—those earning an hourly wage and permanently relegated to the bottom rung of the corporate ladder—were full-fledged members of what was now being euphemistically referred to as the “team,” there was no way to protect themselves.
In truth, hourly workers are (and always have been) regarded purely as “overhead.” To management, they are a necessary but regrettable business expense, a drag on company assets, an impediment to profit. Suggesting that labor and management are “on the same team” is perverse. The phrase itself has all the earmarks of having been spawned in one of those odious human resource seminars. Even the rank-and-file members smirked when they first heard it.
To appreciate what management really thinks of its workers, just consider the amount of money spent on the research and development of robotics. It’s in the billions of dollars. This infatuation with robots reveals more about management’s true regard for the dignity and purposefulness of working people than any slogan dreamed up in a company seminar ever could.
Corporate America’s ideal scenario? To outsource every job it possibly can, and, for those it can’t, to replace living, breathing human beings with “mechanical men.” That tells us everything we need to know.
Moreover, it’s not a coincidence that the moment management sucked unions into believing that “both sides wanted the same thing” was the exact moment when corporate earnings began to soar, when CEO salaries began spiraling wildly upward, and when workers’ wages and benefits began their precipitous downward slide, a decline that continues to this day. Union resistance was the last hurdle to clear; getting the unions to capitulate was the last jewel in the crown.
This observation is not meant as an indictment of union leadership. Their decision to jungle up with management had to be agonizing, one they were pressured and hounded into making. And even though the rank-and-file were skeptical of any such “partnership,” no one can say with certainty how things would have turned out had unions not bought into it. Clearly, no matter what decision labor made, the outlook for traditional “smoke-stack” unions was grim.
With the emergence of the global economy and the exploitation of cheap labor on the world market, the hollowing-out of America’s manufacturing base was more or less inevitable. Because this sector (steel, automobiles, paper, rubber, heavy equipment, etc.) was where the attractive union jobs resided, when these core industries were decimated, labor was effectively crippled. Walter Reuther and George Meany themselves could have risen from the grave, and not been able to stop it.
Still, even if the decline of manufacturing was “inevitable,” what didn’t need to happen was the surrender of organized labor in the non-manufacturing sectors. What didn’t need to happen was a decade’s worth of give-backs, takeaways, and countless accommodations, indignities and instances of the union bending over backwards, few of which, ultimately, led to any long-term benefits.
After all, what was actually gained? Besides being congratulated by management for entering into New Age labor relations, what tangible thing did unions earn by joining the “team”? Union membership continued to plummet. Workers continued to be laid off. Wages and benefits continued to be chipped away. Things got worse. What was the point of labor’s capitulation?
Consider: What would have happened if unions hadn’t bought into the New Culture? What would the outcome have been if, sensing a hideous and demoralizing future which they could do little to improve, unions had stuck to their stubborn, “adversarial” approach and simply gone after all the short-term swag they could get? Would they have come out ahead?
While those questions can’t be answered, one thing is indisputable: Labor unions were co-opted by this “partnership.” They were gamed. Despite labor’s sincerity and willingness to play ball—to attend team-building seminars, extend or renegotiate existing contracts, embrace the Deming Philosophy, form “quality circles,” et al—union contracts, with precious few exceptions, have gotten progressively worse, everywhere and in every way.
What labor did by joining the “team” was grease the skids for management, make things infinitely easier for them. Getting the unions off their back must have seemed like a dream come true, something no one, not even the wildest optimist, would have thought possible in the 1970s. Being neutered is bad enough; being persuaded to do the snipping yourself is a whole other humiliation.
There’s a term in management called “harvesting.” It applies to leaving a business, closing down a facility or discontinuing a product line in such a way as to maximize every last opportunity for making money on the way out.
For example, when a company shuts down a plant or one of its main production lines, management rarely announces its plan in advance of what is required by law, in accordance with the 1989 WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act, which requires 60 days notice of a plant closure or the layoff of 50 or more employees.
Even with rumors circulating to the contrary, management reassures everyone that a shutdown is unlikely. Telling workers that an operation is definitely going to be discontinued is risky. It’s information that can negatively affect morale, which, in turn, can negatively affect production.
Therefore, in order to squeeze the maximum profit out of a dying enterprise, they do the opposite. They spread the word that, even though things are looking bad, if people work harder and production increases significantly, chances are good that the product line will be retained and everyone will keep their job. In a word, they “harvest” the enterprise.
In 1992, the Kimberly-Clark Corp. did this very thing with its infant care operation at the Fullerton, California, paper mill. Despite increased sales of their extremely popular “Huggies” disposable diaper, Kimberly-Clark continued to cut back on the number of machines producing them at their diaper plants, nation-wide.
Because machine speeds and efficiency had increased dramatically, 28 machines in the corporation were now producing what it took 42 machines to do just a year or so earlier. The increased productivity was staggering. Machines that previously ran at 300 dpm (diapers per minute), were now purring along at speeds in excess of 500 dpm, and the rates were continuing to climb.
Having already seen 4 of its 6 machines shut down, the Fullerton diaper crews were understandably nervous. Even as Fullerton’s production and efficiency numbers continued to increase, the writing on the wall was clear. As much as people tried to remain upbeat, seeing those 2 lonely diaper machines in the middle of a huge factory was cause for worry. Because this wasn’t a plant shutdown, and the total remaining employees numbered fewer than 50, the company wasn’t obligated to give notification.
But when company executives visited the mill and were asked by hourly workers and union officers if the diaper department had a future, they assured everyone it did. They told the crews that if the production rates continued to improve as they had, things “looked very good for them.” This caused everyone to work even harder.
The operation was discontinued shortly after the last visit. Ironically, the month it was shut down happened to be the same month the department set an all-time production record. While shutting down had been a foregone conclusion, it was one which management felt it couldn’t risk sharing with the crews.
A similar tactic was used to “harvest” organized labor. Management had no intention of joining in any partnership with the unions. God forbid. All they were interested in was getting the unions to back off, to become less aggressive in their negotiations, to “heel,” like obedient dogs, until companies could figure out how best to maximize their profit in a rapidly changing world. They succeeded.
The lesson for organized labor is simple: Stay united, stay focused on core principles, don’t trust anything that comes out of management’s mouth. Above all, don’t let anyone pretend that union-management relations aren’t adversarial in nature, because it’s not true. The two sides don’t want the same thing. They never have and never will.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com