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Talking Union

One of the most ingenious and effective anti-union innovations of the 20th century was the introduction of what came to be known as the “Team” concept. The HR people who thought up this device in one of their secret laboratories deserve to be given medals, because the result of this arrangement has dramatically altered the labor landscape.

Prior to the advent of the Team, there was a clear and unmistakable sense of “Us vs. Them” permeating the floor of a union shop. You couldn’t miss it. The shift-supervisor (formerly referred to as “foreman”) represented “Them” and ran roughshod over the crews, and the crews represented “Us.” It was not unlike an enlisted man’s view of the army officer corps. We did the fighting (the work), and they got the promotions.

While we all realized we were there to work, and were cognizant of who signed our paychecks, we were also aware that our wages, benefits and working conditions were largely the result of our union affiliation. The way we saw it, without a union providing the resistance that unions provide, everything that tended to work in our favor would gradually be taken from us. Simple as that.

While this “adversarial” relationship could, at times, become overheated and work against the best interests of everyone (labor and management alike), those occasions were rare. In truth, the Us vs. Them construct was a vital element in the preservation of union solidarity. And solidarity was everything.

Indeed, without solidarity, the Labor Movement—on both the local and national stage—made no sense. Without the adhesion provided by solidarity, there would not only be a perception of weakness, there would also be a tendency for workers to morph into “independent contractors,” with no collective plan and no power. Which is exactly what happened.

As for those shift-supervisors, it’s fair to say that most of the crew either tolerated or despised them. And it went both ways. Because most of the supervisors viewed the workers as being protected, if not “coddled,” by their big, bad labor union, they more or less resented everyone on the floor (and envied them for belonging to a union).

Say what you will about the long-term effects of harboring hostility, but this “dynamic tension” served us well. In fact, it was actually healthy. How healthy? The crews continued to set productivity records, capital investments continued to be made, new equipment continued to be installed, and additional employees continued to be hired. But there was still that pesky union allegiance to contend with. And that allegiance rankled management.

So, beginning in the 1980s, HR set about to reinvent the world. Realizing their one and only hope of eroding solidarity lay in blurring—and ultimately erasing—the line between union and management, they got rid of all the frontline supervisors. They not only got rid of them, they replaced them with hourly workers (union members), who were now assigned those clerical, “non-managerial” duties (as defined by labor law), thus rendering us part of the same Team.

The simplistic notion that supervisors were necessary to make sure people did their jobs had always been a misconception, one that most people on the floor resented and found insulting. The overwhelming majority of employees were diligent.

As for the lazy ones, the union had long ago managed to convince most of them that it took more effort, more calculation, and more mental strain to artfully and successfully avoid working than to actually do the work.

The upshot of the Team concept is clear. With the line now blurred, union membership is down, wages have stagnated, working conditions have deteriorated, member confidence in their unions is low, and the American middle-class continues to shrink. Meanwhile, the stock market is at a record high. All part of an HR master plan. They deserve medals.