Cutting Off Your Nose To Spite Your Face

Dec. 21, 2004
Some unions just don't get it.

Recent comments by the United Auto Workers (UAW) regarding their disputes with General Motors Corp. over outsourced labor have prompted me to speak out. I am continually distressed and amazed at unions that strike in opposition to outsourcing--even when their bargaining unit is not competitive. And this resistance is not always limited to unions, either. I was incredulous when Ford supported the UAW several months ago by refusing seats made by non-union (strike replacement) workers at Johnson Controls Inc. Johnson had located a plant near the Ford Sport Utility Vehicle assembly plant to support JIT delivery to Ford, and reportedly yielded to Ford's pressure to accept a UAW bargaining unit for the plant. Then, when Johnson and the UAW couldn't reach agreement on a contract and the UAW called a strike, Ford refused the seats made by non-union Johnson Controls workers (even though they were desperately needed to support the hot-selling Ford SUV production line). With friends like these, who needs enemies? This is the kind of power play that poisons partnerships. Comments such as "the union 'owns' those jobs," make me cringe. No one owns a job. You get to keep a job as long as you earn it by being the most competitive source. I spent ten years working (cooperatively) with the United Steelworkers of America. It wasn't always easy or free of conflict, but we cooperated to protect our jobs in the right way--by being competitive. That is the only way jobs can be protected for the long term. Perhaps not all employers realize this. But some unions and companies seem to be getting the right idea faster and better than others. How many jobs have to disappear off-shore or to foreign-owned, non-union plants before the message gets through? A few months ago, I had occasion to discuss the same kind of issues with officials of UNITE (United Needletrade, Industrial, and Textile Employees). Their level of ideas and understanding, and spirit of cooperation gave me new hope. I have also heard several companies' compliments of the International Association of Machinists' programs for improved competitiveness and work life. Do union leaders talk to each other? And when they do, do they listen? Sure, the UAW can cripple GM, Ford, or Chrysler, but who will that benefit? Not the UAW members who are their employees! It helps Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mercedes, BMW--the non-U.S.-owned (non-UAW) automakers. If the factories owned by GM (or Delphi or whomever) and staffed with UAW members are non-competitive, jobs will not remain secure for very long. The cars produced using those parts or that labor will also be non-competitive, and eventually consumers will "fire" those workers by not buying their products. If all the time, money, effort, and emotion that goes into strikes, negotiations, mud-slinging and adversarial relationships were directed toward cooperation, the competitiveness of the products could improve dramatically. Blackmail and extortion can only work for the short term. To add to the problems, Congress continues to blindly leave the TEAM Act--legislation dealing with workers' ability to work in teams without risk of creating labor-law violations--in limbo. I believe cooperation and collaboration are better ways of working together than adversarial behavior. Partnerships aren't a cure-all, and they certainly aren't easy. But partnering does pay off--sometimes handsomely--and it's a lot better than "cutting off your nose to spite your face," which is what the current behavior seems to be doing.

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