Economic Outlook: Solidarity in hard times

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  Jan. 23, 2012 at 11:03 AM
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You need hindsight and a calculator to figure out how U.S. unions fared through the recent recession.

The hindsight is the hard part. True, there are fewer union workers now than there were 25 years ago. And it is true that many employers have been able to negotiate key concessions from among the strongest unions in the country. But there have also been gains. Members of the United Auto Workers union, for example, voted 2-1 to ratify four-year contracts with both Ford Motor Co. General Motors last fall. That means something went right for a change. Does it not?

It certainly does not.

Both Ford and GM have been posting billion-dollar quarterly profits in recent years, surging away from a devastating recession that sent both GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy court. Unions hung on; they did not sail through. Plants closed with workers by the thousands laid off during the recession and post-recession, the numbers have not returned to normal.

The new contracts solidified permission for car companies to pay new workers dramatically less than established workers -- a two-tier payment system that will rankle the rank and file for years to come because two members working the same job could have a $14 per hour gap between them.

Finding the balancing point is the hard part. How many jobs would have been lost had the unions insisted on equal pay for equal work?

Ford, while surely benefiting from the new wage scale, also agreed to add 12,000 new workers within four years. That is a gain that union leaders find hard to turn down, given union membership in the country dropped from 12.3 percent of all workers to 11.9 percent in 2010 alone. From 1983 to 2010, union membership fell from 20.1 percent of all workers, 17.7 million members, to 11.9 percent, or 14.7 million.

The power-differential moves critically during hard times. Employers are getting tougher because having millions of unemployed workers means there is an enormous pool of replacements should a local union go on strike.

A rising number of lockouts "is a sign of increased employer militancy," Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, told The New York Times.

"Lockouts were once so rare they were almost unheard of. Now, not only are employers increasingly on the offensive and trying to call the shots in bargaining, but they're backing that up with action -- in the form of lockouts," he said.

A recession takes away lots of things. The recession that ended June 2009 took away, among other things, union leverage.

In international markets Monday, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan was flat, off 0.01 percent and the Shanghai composite index in China rose 1 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong rose 0.84 percent and the Sensex in India rose 0.08 percent.

The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia fell 0.34 percent.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain rose 0.65 percent while the DAX 30 in Germany rose 0.41 percent. The CAC 40 in France gained 0.47 percent and the Stoxx Europe 600 rose 0.25 percent.

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