Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Union self destruction and the demise of Detroit

I've been following a fellow by the name of Gregg Shotwell for a while, due to his union activism and local roots. He used to publish a newsletter called Live Bait and Ammo, offering a dissenting view (from union leadership) during the meltdown of automotive unions in the latter half of the past decade. His newsletter, no longer published, has apparently disappeared because the Soldiers of Solidarity site, which used to host it, appears to be out of commission. I was able to find an archive of his newsletters. It was interesting to read an angry insider's view of the union meltdown.

I decided to check up on Shotwell to see if he was still publishing his newsletter. I had a hard time finding out what was going on with him because all the web sites that seemed to publish his papers were gone. Come to find out, Gregg retired and wrote a book, which appears to be a compilation of his newsletter writings, and he got some local press when it was published. One such event was an interview earlier this year with Z Magazine. The full, extended interview is also available online.

The reason I'm bringing this up is to demonstrate exactly what happened to unions in America and why they imploded. In the interview, Shotwell laments the loss of worker autonomy as automation took over:

*Piascik:* In *Autoworkers Under the Gun*, you talk about how workers had far more control of the shop floor 30+ years ago than now. Can you elaborate on that?
*Shotwell:* Automation and lean production methods, which are an intensification of Taylorism, have successfully sped up and dumbed down the jobs. In the Seventies, auto production required a lot more people power. Our sheer numbers gave us a greater sense of influence on the job and in society at large. Workers had more control over the production and pace of the work because manufacturing depended more on workers' knowledge, skills, and muscle.
Today, everything is automated, computerized, and heavily monitored. As a result human labor is devalued and workers feel less important. Thirty years ago, we also had a union culture that advocated confrontation rather than cooperation with the boss. There was a clear demarcation between union and management. In the Eighties, management attempted to blur that difference and the UAW went along with this ridiculous idea that the boss was your friend rather than someone who wanted you to work harder for less. It's been a painful history lesson and one that UAW President Bob King has failed to acknowledge despite the overwhelming evidence that concessions and cooperation do not save jobs.
In my early years, whenever management would start to crack down, we retaliated by slowing down production. The bosses learned quickly that if they wanted to meet production goals, the best way to do that was to treat the people who did the work with respect. If I was running production and the boss gave me a hard time, I would create a problem with the machine and write it up for a job setter, who in turn would shut it down and write it up for a skilled tradesman. When I told him the boss was on my back he would ask, "How long do you want it down?" This wasn't something that we organized, it was a part of the shop floor culture. We agreed never to do someone else's job, we had clear job definitions or work rules and we adamantly refused to violate our contract. Today, the UAW promotes speed up, multi-tasking, and job definitions or work rules which are so broad they are worthless. Workers today enjoy less autonomy because they have less support from the official union and a shop floor culture of cooperation rather than confrontation with management.

Anyone who hasn't worked in a union shop, particularly in the 70s and 80s, is probably scratching their head (me included). Shotwell is lamenting the loss of a work culture where, to "get back" at your manager, workers would conspire to slow down work and harm the company. He also points out that union members relied on very specific work rules and wouldn't do someone else's job. He complains that union work rules are now too broad so that workers are expected to do multiple things.

That, folks, is what happened to unions and, by extension, Detroit. Of course a company is going to fail when that is the predominant culture. Confrontation, lack of cooperation, and unwillingness to do anything but exactly what the "contract" says. But Shotwell doesn't seem to draw the dotted line between this behavior and the failure of unions at the Big Three.

Shotwell also correctly points out that the Big Three's leadership failed, big time, by failing to produce quality designs as foreign competition stepped up. But he is completely blind to the union's failure to be a positive part of that equation. Shotwell advocates more confrontation with "management." He doesn't grasp that it's counter-productive and destructive. Apparently he believes that the country can return to the "good ole days" where there was no foreign competition, the US was the exporter of the world, and unions had limited economic constraints.

Well, the world has changed. Automation has done more to reduce manufacturing jobs than foreign competition over the last decade, and private-sector unionism is dying. But through the writings of Shotwell, we can see the roots of failure of Detroit.

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