Unions in America really are under assault from every direction. Certainly they are still powerful and not to be under estimated, but unions really have lost much of the power they once had. At less than 20 percent of the work force these days, the unions that are left have been finding themselves being forced to make the sort of concessions that they once would never even consider.
The New York Times reports on one more bit of news showing that unions are taking deals just to stay working that once would have been flatly refused as two-tiered wage scales are becoming more common in this recessionary economic climate.
I reported on a two-tiered wage plan being considered by the electrical workers union in Chicago last October. In Chicago the union was considering offering employers electrical workers at lower wages that have less training. The idea was that employers could use these workers at the beginning of their career for jobs not requiring a journeyman electrician. Naturally, members were furious and felt that they would eventually lose their own wage scale.
But the Times reports that unions across the spectrum are beginning to accept these ideas just to keep working at all.
In years past, two-tiered systems were used to drive down costs in hard times, but mainly at companies already in trouble. And those arrangements, at the insistence of the unions, were designed, in most cases, to expire in a few years.
Now, the managers of some marquee companies are aiming to make this concession permanent. If they are successful, their contracts could become blueprints for other companies in other cities, extending a wage system that would be a startling retreat for labor.
The Times reports that workers at Harley Davison, Mercury Marine, Kohler, Delphi Auto Parts, and Caterpillar have all settled with the union and instituted a two-tiered wage system.
Additionally, states that have laws that heavily favor unions are losing residents by the thousands as these people move to right to work states that have laws more favorable to jobs makers.
But all this reflects the reality of the jobs market. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs and businesses have had to cut to the bone in order just to keep the doors open.
The NYTimes quotes Matthew Levatich, president of Harley-Davidson, to good effect on this point.
“What we are doing is not mean-spirited,” Mr. Levatich insisted. “We have to retool if we want to survive. We should have started doing this, in small steps, 20 years ago.”
The stark reality of this statement cannot be denied.
In any case, the fact that these unions have been powerless to avoid the wide implementation of two-tiered wage policies shows that unions simply haven’t the power they used to have.