There’s a well known anecdote involving Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. After Douglas had given a long, flowery speech during one of their public debates, Lincoln asked the audience a simple question: “How many legs does a horse have?” “Four,” the audience answered in unison. “And how many legs would a horse have if you called his tail a leg?” The audience answered in unison, “Five.”
“Wrong,” Lincoln said. “Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it true.”
Unfortunately, that same illogic applies to the startling trend we see in the field of labor relations. Apparently, some seminar creature stood on his hind legs 25 years ago and declared that the time had come for management and labor to recognize that their relationship was no longer “adversarial” in nature, that they were, in fact, both looking to achieve the same goal.
Since then, everyone’s been parroting that glib assertion, as if the mere repetition of it makes it true. Moreover, when one tries to suggest that the characterization is not only inaccurate, but, perhaps, part of a deliberate corporate effort to co-opt the labor movement, he’s treated—even by some union officials—as a militant or cynic or, worse, a defeatist.
This is not an attack on capitalism. It is no more an attempt to demonize or excoriate the “profit motive” than acknowledging the presence of fangs and venom is an attempt to demonize a rattlesnake. It’s simply pointing out the obvious, which is that management and labor clearly do not want the same thing. They want two distinctly different things. And it’s been that way for, well, a millennium or so.
If management and labor wanted the same thing, Exxon Mobile executives, in the face of record oil profits (more than $10 billion in a single quarter), would have instantly sought ways to reward its hourly workers. If both sides wanted the same thing, Exxon execs would have said, “Hey, we really need to share some of this obscene oil wealth we just lucked into.”
Another example: When the Big Three automakers were rolling in money, back in the 1960s, the UAW (United Auto Workers) still had to claw and scratch and occasionally go on strike to get the pay raises the membership deserved. As wildly profitable as they were, Ford, Chrysler and GM nonetheless tried their hardest to keep that revenue out of the hands of the hourly employees who helped earn it.
And another example: When a celebrity like Barbra Streisand receives, say, a lucrative recording bonus, does anyone really think she says, “Great, now I’ll be able to increase the pay of my gardener, housekeeper and that guy who walks my dog”? No. This is where Barb’s Malibu “liberalism” peters out, and her sense of economic self-interest kicks in. The more they make, the more they resent parting with it.
But these observations shouldn’t surprise anyone. Corny as it sounds, this is the way of the world: supply and demand, charging as much as the market will bear, and paying employees no more than required to keep them from quitting—these phenomena are de facto laws of economics. We’re all big boys and girls. We know how it works.
Still, the one thing that sticks in our craws and makes us want to collectively puke is when corporate America pretends it’s otherwise. When accountants and executives pretend we’re on the same “team,” when they preach that labor unions are obsolete and that workers need only trust their employers to look out for them.
By saying we want the same thing, they mean, of course, that we all want and need a stable and profitable environment. We need jobs . . . they need workers . . . and therein lies the magic of symbiosis. That’s why, when a new business enters a community, its public relations people are quick to remind everyone that the company is there to improve the economy by providing jobs.
But businesses do not view the workforce as a benefit; they never have and never will. Rather, they see labor for what it is . . . pure “overhead.” And in their relentless effort to reduce costs, American corporations are investing billions of dollars in the development of robotics. Demoralizing as it is, they want those remaining jobs that can’t be shipped overseas and done by Third World beggars to be done by ‘droids.
Now imagine the poor shmuck who just found out he’d lost his job to a Malaysian factory worker (or to a relative of R2-D2), who pleads with his bosses to recall what they’d told him in company seminars—that we all want the same thing and are all on the same team. Sorry, but this guy would be escorted out by security guards and drop-kicked over the front gate (ten years from now, it will be robots doing the escorting).
So, what’s all this have to do with labor unions? Can a union prevent jobs from being outsourced or mechanized? Probably not. And Congress certainly isn’t courageous or imaginative enough to pass laws that would punish companies for leaving American soil or replacing live people with machines. After all, this is the same craven group of politicians who sneaks themselves pay raises at 2:00 a.m., so as not to draw attention.
However, if 30% (instead of the current 12%) of the jobs that can’t be sent overseas or readily replaced with robots were unionized, we’d have an improved, more dynamic economy. We’d have a more equitable economy. We’d have the beginnings of a resurgent middle-class. And, as “noble adversaries,” we wouldn’t have to hear anymore of that management tripe about being on the same team.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com