Okay, one last substantive post till Monday when I move into my new digs and find out what classes I'll be teaching.
Every now and again, center-left blogger Matthew Yglesias posts a link showing the rise of American manufacturing output over the last 40 years. This chart is usually met with howls of derision in the comments, with people noting that it is a lie by which we conceal how our evil corporate masters have sent all of the good jobs overseas.
Musician James McCurtry's "We Can't Make it Here Anymore" poignantly expresses his feeling on so-called free trade: "Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin/ Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I'm in/ Should I hate 'em for having our jobs today/ No I hate the men sent the jobs away."1
But the over-educated left-wing white guy who'd never acutally work at The Plant and James McCurtry are both actually missing the point. The issue isn't really manufacturing. When people lament the decline of American manufacturing, they're using manufacturing as a shorthand for, "Unskilled job that you can get right out of high school that pays middle class wages and provides benefits." In America of the mid-20th century, such jobs were in fact manufacturing.
We lament that manufacturing jobs have gone away. But there are still plenty of unskilled jobs of the sort that one can do right out of high school or always hold as the back up option if one decides to drop out of college. I recently spent eight months in one.2 I had a co-worker who had done this job for a while after dropping out of college to support his kid who eventually decided that he was going nowhere and joined the army. But this job paid jack and s***. Seriously, I busted my a** for pay similar to that of a Starbucks barista. But why exactly was the pay so low? Moving boxes pays fairly well for UPS workers, but then UPS workers also happen to be members of the Brotherhood of Teamsters. And therein lies the issue. When people say "manufacturing," they ought to be saying, "unionized work."
I remember one of the greatest shocks that I got in an undergraduate course came in my one semester of Texas History. In a lecture on something happening in the early fifties, the instructor mentioned a strike by the retail employees' union. I heard that, and I was simply agog that folks in retail could unionize. "Wait," I thought, "Aren't unions for folks who get paid thirty dollars an hour to screw on lugnuts?"
When I did my graduate work in Canada, when I was a TA, I was part of a union, and, to be precise, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3902, Unit 1. Contract instructors (what we call adjuncts in the States) were part of Unit 3. At times the union was annoying. The leaders were full-on Marxists (not in the anyone left of Grover Norquis sense that American conservatives use, but actual reds of the Trotskyite variety). They talked about how we were exploited workers (at 37+ dollars an hour) and were always threatening to strike. But... (And hear I quote from an earlier Forvm comment of mine): The union was good for us. For example, in August of 2008, the University of Toronto announced
that their announced increase in funding of doctoral students was not going to happen. Their promise to increase funding, they said, had been
a promise to think about increasing funding. Now then, this promise
had come about as a settlement to a previous threat to strike by the
TAs' and contract instructors' union. So when the university decided to
renege on its promise, this same union went to the Ontario Labour Board
and said, "Oh, no you don't." Within a week, the university backed
down and doctoral students got their pay increase.
Moreover, contract instructors in Canadian universities generally make three times what their American counterparts do.
I'm talking about retail employees and university instructors because these are both areas in which you don't particularly think of folks being unionized. And yet, when unionized, they benefit greatly.
So worrying about the sock or ironing board tariffs misses, I think, the bigger problem. Any uskilled work that exists could be made more renumerative if there were unions involved. But even in times of employment that's right at 10%, the current America still sees unions as a collection of folks who just want to try and get away with less work for more money and who gin up artificial confrontations. Now, in America of 2000, when we had full employment, and finding work was simply a manner of saying, "I think I'll get a job," I can understand how you would have had such an attitude. And even in the aughts, where employment growth was not as good, but still okay, such an attitude made at least a bit of sense. But in the current economic environment, it seems beyond all reason that more employees are not seeking to unionize so that they have at least a basic standard of living.
I'd say that in bad times, folks adopt a defensive crouch, but some of the greatest labor advances came in the 1930's, when jobs were really, really thin on the ground. And yet folks who had jobs actively fought for, and won, some pretty impressive rights.
So why don't more so-called unskilled workers unionize? And how much of a change in ethos would it take to make unionization happen?
1. James McCurtry appears a whole lot on NPR, whereas the country that one commonly hears on country stations... doesn't. I leave why as an excercise for the reader.
2. A man with a PhD in Medieval Studies working in a warehouse might seem amusing in a Kurt Vonnegut/Joseph Heller sort of way, but it's really just kind of a sweaty, dirty job in which I was really tired at the end of the day. Although using a forklift was fun.