When looking at the economic crater which is the US auto industry, liberals have a tendency to blame “big business” while conservatives tend to blame the UAW’s stranglehold on the big three. Both are right to an extent. Detroit’s current straights are the result of bad strategic decisions, bad design, bad regulation and the immense financial drag of pension and health benefit promises made to its workers back in the 60s and 70s when the US auto industry reigned supreme in the world, and promising future payouts seemed no object. In this last regard, the unions had quite a hand in planting the seeds of their own fall. And although they’re striven to be more flexible in recent years, union work rules still provide major obstacles to change in union plants.
The problem, he argues, is not just the high level of benefits that the United Auto Workers has secured for its members but the work rules—some 5,000 pages of them—it has imposed on the automakers. As Kaus points out, unionism as established by the Wagner Act is inherently adversarial. The union once certified as bargaining agent has a duty not only to negotiate wages and fringe benefits but also to negotiate work rules and to represent workers in constant disputes about work procedures.
The plight of the Detroit Three auto companies raises the question of why people ever thought this was a good idea.
The answer to that question which he provides is interesting, and I think illustrative for those seeking a proper understanding of the dignity of work in its relationship to unionism and good business practices:
The answer, I think, is that unionism was seen as the necessary antidote to Taylorism. That’s not a familiar term today, but it was when the Wagner Act was passed in 1935. Frederick Winslow Taylor was a Philadelphia businessman who pioneered time and motion studies. As Robert Kanigal sets out in The One Best Way, his biography of Taylor, he believed that there was “one best way” to do every job. Industrial workers, he believed, should be required to do their job in this one best way, over and over again. He believed workers should be treated like dumb animals and should be allowed no initiative whatever, lest they perform with less than perfect efficiency.
Taylor’s work was regarded as gospel by many industrial managers in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, a time when many factory workers were recent immigrants, often with a less than perfect command of English. Auto assembly lines were organized on Taylorite principles to squeeze the last bit of efficiency out of low-skill workers. And squeeze some more. If you ask UAW defenders why they have so many work rules, they will tell you horror stories of the “speedup” dating back to the 1930s. Workers who were required to do some operation 20 times an hour were told to do it 30 times an hour, and so forth. Wagnerism was a response to Taylorism.
Workers hated these jobs. But in the 1930s, with unemployment ranging over 10 percent, they were happy to have them: At least they got a paycheck and there were thousands of others who would be happy to take their jobs if they told their bosses to shove it. Flash forward to 1970, when the UAW was negotiating its contract with General Motors, a story told by William Serrin in The Company and the Union. Taylorism was still the reigning philosophy of management, and workers really hated their jobs. I remember hearing a UAW political operative tell me, with horror in his voice, that a colleague who deviated from UAW discipline “was sent back to the line.” So the big UAW demand that year was “30 and out”—assembly line workers could retire after 30 years on the job. This in turn led the union to demand generous retiree benefits. A worker who retired at 51 wouldn’t be eligible for Medicare for 14 years, and therefore the UAW negotiated incredibly generous medical benefits—elective dental work with no copayment is one that sticks in my mind.
The UAW also created a constituency within itself of retirees who have voting rights in union elections just as actual workers do, and there are now something like three times as many GM retirees as GM employees as voting members of the UAW. Retiree benefits account for the lion’s share of the difference between GM’s labor costs and the labor costs of foreign automakers in the United States.
However, as the US auto makers were at their most dominant, and the unions were winning their biggest victories in regard to negotiating benefits, new competition was looming in the form of Japanese car makers who had a different work philosophy and a different set of relations between workers and management:
Japanese automakers … managed their plants not according to Taylorism but by giving their workers more autonomy and more responsibility—by treating them like sentient human beings and not like dumb animals as Frederick Taylor taught. The Detroit Three by all accounts I have seen were slow to learn from this—and were even slower to apply the lessons the Japanese taught—because of Wagnerism. Japanese management required cooperation between managers and workers. Wagnerism insisted that all interaction between managers and workers be conducted on an adversarial basis. The 5,000 pages of work rules mean that GM can’t manage the way Toyota does.
In forming my highly negative opinion of unions, I’ve several times seen this abide-by-work-rules-whether-it-makes-sense-or-not mentality at work, and it’s always been a major turn off for me. This historical explanation, however, helps put things in perspective for me.
If an employer structures jobs or adopts practices which dehumanize workers, one should hardly be surprised if the workers adopt an adversarial attitude and seek to negotiate concessions in work practices. It also strikes me as simply being an idiotic way to run your company. Human capital (to use the buzzword) is almost invariably one of your greatest expenses, but it can also be one of your greatest resources. Why cut your workers off from the ability to help your company by making them act like robots? Why intentionally make jobs more uncreative and repetitive than necessary?
It sounds like the Japanese car makers developed approaches to manufacturing that were much more in keeping with respecting the dignity of workers and their work — thus benefiting not only the workers but the companies and their products. Here’s hoping that by the time the dust settles with the US auto industry that the door will be open for US owned companies to follow a similar path.