Stop Blaming Unions  

I headed over to MSNBC for the latest news on the kidnapping of Captain David Phillips, but couldn't help reading up on Elkhart, Indiana, instead.

When discussion turns to the decline of the American manufacturing, labor unions inevitably come in for a full share of criticism.

That sentiment surfaced on Day 1 of the The Elkhart Project, with several readers offering the opinion that unions must be at least partly to blame for the economic mayhem being visited on the city and surrounding communities.

But in the case of Elkhart County, organized labor bears no responsibility for the precipitous decline of the RV industry for a simple reason: All the recreational vehicle manufacturers in the area run non-union shops.

In fact, there are very few union manufacturing jobs in the city at all.

There are manufacturing jobs in Elkhart. There's a musical instrument manufacturer and on April 1, 2006, 230 workers walked out on strike there:

Union officials said the strikers walked out when contract talks broke down over wages and benefits, with the company demanding 40 percent pay cuts and substantial reductions in vacation, retirement and health insurance.

Here's the thing, you have to vote to strike. In 2006, just a few months before I launched this blog, these workers just wanted the same contract. They wanted to work. The company wanted to crush the union. What better way to do it than to refuse to negotiate and force a strike vote? I suppose you could do what Kongsberg Automotive did, lock out the workers, illegally, but hey, whatever. More from Newsvine:

“We would have extended the current contract, we asked for nothing,” said Kish, who believes the company wanted to force a strike to destroy the union. “I call it corporate terrorism.”

Steinway Musical Instruments, the New York Stock Exchange-listed company that owns Conn-Selmer, declined to comment. The company has been trying since 2007 to get the union decertified, but the results of a disputed vote on the issue won’t be decided until President Obama fills vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board.

But, you can hear from the workers themselves:

I look at it this way, when you're loyal to your employer in good times and bad, then you deserve the same from them. Conn-Selmer clearly doesn't feel the same way. It doesn't seem much different from what happened to the Diamond Walnut workers, from American Rights at Work:

When the company started to have financial trouble in the 1980s and appealed to the workers for help, a sense of loyalty compelled them to assist. The workers and their union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, approved of cuts of over 30 percent to their wages and benefits in order to keep the company afloat.

And then what happened? The company rebounded. They got back on their feet and then went back to the workers and after 4 years offered a 10 cent per hour increase. Sweet, huh? So, then what?

In September 1991, with no other recourse, the workers voted to strike. Without effective labor law to help them force Diamond to negotiate fairly, the striking workers and their union worked to draw public attention to their plight, beginning with a call for an international boycott of Diamond Walnut products.

I had boycott Diamond walnuts for a very long time. As a baker, it was a very difficult decision to make. But, I did it, until the scabs decided that they needed a union.

A break in the impasse began when Diamond's replacement workers realized that a union would help them improve their working conditions. In 2004, Diamond workers - including the strikers and their replacements - voted to retain union representation. Shortly afterwards, the company finally sought a resolution and negotiated a fair contact with the union. In March 2005, 750 workers ratified a new five-year contract that secured wage increases, stabilized healthcare costs, and offered a 401(k) plan, training programs, and English classes. Additionally, the strikers retained benefits and seniority when they returned to the plant, all without causing the replacement workers to lose their jobs.

Justice prevailed for the replacement workers seeking union representation. The same cannot be said for the striking workers who made significant sacrifices for their employer and for the struggle. Fewer than 30 of the original 600 striking workers returned to the plant to enjoy the benefits of the new contract. After 14 years of struggle, most of the original Diamond workers were forced to find other employment, or were simply too old to go back to work.

If you read comments on the Newsvine thread, you get to see how some (probably paid by anti-union groups or simply from the Chamber of Commerce) folks view the concept of unity, negotiating and collective bargaining. They claim things that just aren't true from unions time has come and gone to there's no need for them in a global economy.

There is no better time for unity than right now. Unions rose from the roots. When the owners of industry treated work as if it were useless and a commodity to be traded and when government came in and assisted owners by shooting workers, jailing them and harassing them, it was clear what we needed. A Voice. And that's what your union is for you. All you have to do is look to the Charleston 5, the American Axle Strike or the sit in at Republic Windows.

Greed is not an American value. And neither is anti-unionism, no matter how loud the anti-union voices are, it's not an American Value. This is the time for unions. Together we Bargain, Divided, We STARVE. Unions make us strong.

You can follow the Elkhart Project on Twitter (I am).

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  • Ronald  
    10:20 PM

    Thanks for keeping up with the sad saga of disposed craftspeople. Find out more at I hope to be writing more in the future. I has have more videos to upload.

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