Recession Pressure on Labor Rights

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The US 12 Bar and Grill in Wayne, Michigan has an unusually-timed happy hour. Drink specials start at 9 pm, scheduled to attract local auto workers getting off second shift. For $3, the bartender pours me a full rocks glass of Grand Marnier. I appear to be the only female patron in the bar, which perhaps explains why the guys tolerate my incessant questions about how the recession has affected their industry and labor contracts.


Last week, I met Beau Jencks, a labor organizer for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. A friendly chat in the elevator evolved into a long conversation about how the economic downturn has affected workers' rights and contract negotiations. 

In Jencks's experience, companies are using the current economic environment to justify excessive concessions from organized labor, effectively squeezing the working man to further enrich the executive class. And because a pervasive fear of layoffs looms over any contract negotiation, unions are agreeing to deeper concessions than they otherwise would. As a result, Jencks said, the recession is essentially handicapping the labor movement and erasing decades of hard-fought progress.

The half-drunk auto workers I hung out with at US 12 would agree with part of what Jencks said, but they take a dimmer view of their own labor representatives at the United Auto Workers. "I think the union is in bed with the company," Frank says bluntly. The brawny smooth-scalped Ford worker, incongruously sipping from a bottle of Bud Light, has enough sense to ask I don't use his real name. The UAW would "blackball" him for speaking out about what he and his co-workers think about their union.

A few weeks ago, Ford workers voted down a contract modification that the UAW had negotiated and urged them to support. Though their contract was not due for re-negotiation until 2011, Ford and the UAW said the concessions--involving vacation time, over-time, health benefits and entry level wages, among other things--were necessary to maintain competitiveness with Chrysler and GM, whose workers voted to accept similar changes earlier this year as their employers were verging on bankruptcy.

The contract modification was roundly defeated across the nation, in a few locations those opposing it reached 90%. Outside analysts have suggested the measure failed because Ford workers believe their company's avoidance of bankruptcy makes the concessions excessive and unnecessary--essentially penalizing the auto maker for its success. However, according to Frank, those voting against the contract modifications at his plant in Rawsonville generally turned on one single issue unrelated to wages or benefits: the right to strike. 

Throughout the history of the labor movement, strike action has been the trump card of unions, providing the teeth for collective bargaining. Striking represents a basic philosophical essence of organized labor. The concessions UAW negotiated with Ford included a clause that would have required binding arbitration to resolve any disagreements over wages or benefits at the 2011 contract re-negotiation with Ford. "What's a union without the right to strike?," Frank demands to know. "That's like sending your soldiers off to battle after turning your weapons over to the enemy."

That was only the first detail that began to spark Frank's suspicions that the UAW had become company men. What really convinced him was the scheduling of the contract vote, which occurred the week prior to Ford's announcement that its third quarter turned a profit of nearly $1 billion. "They're all in cahoots with the company," Frank concludes. "Why would they schedule the vote the week before the third quarter announcement? What kind of shit is that? It makes me wonder about my union. The vote's a big slap in the face of [UAW president] Ron Gettlefinger. He's supposed to be working for the people, not for the company."

The vote failed anyway, nationally with about 70-75% opposed, but Frank believes the margins would have been even bigger had the UAW held the vote after Ford announced a $1 billion profit. In his own peculiarly creative way, Frank explains: "I understand they have to pay the bills, but why does the worker get a peanut and the company get the elephant? Why can't they both get watermelons?" (It was getting late.) 

Frank's plant in Rawsonville voted down the measure by only about 5%, primarily because Ford had guaranteed the creation of 2000 new jobs manufacturing hybrid batteries for the Ford Focus. Since that's now up in the air, I ask Frank if he's concerned Ford would create those jobs down in Mexico instead. He believes it would cost Ford more to build the manufacturing facilities down in Mexico than the company would save on labor costs. Also, he thinks Ford wouldn't risk the negative PR they'd receive for creating jobs in a foreign country during a time when so many Americans are unemployed.

One of the guys decides it's time to order a round of double-shots of Jack, so I shove my notebook in my bag and say goodnight. Leaving US 12, I walk an indirect route to the car, slinking behind an F-150 and making sure no one is watching before I jump into my rented Toyota Prius.

(Photo: Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry, via pigliapost/Flickr)

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Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer, and book editor who specializes in national security, terrorism, and war. She also writes for the food blog Feed The Masses. More

Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, D.C. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes for a broad array of publications, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog Feed The Masses. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip project for TheAtlantic.com.

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