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Greg Worden

Entrepreneur and Adjunct Professor of Sustainable Business, Worden Associates

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Are unions in the US still relevant?

Hostess is closing eliminating 18.500 jobs due, in part, to 5,000 bakery union members striking while the Teamsters had already accepted a deal. True, the company had been mismanaged but this appears to be an example of a union cutting off its nose despite its face. The US has some of the best worker-protection laws in the world. Is this an example of good union leadership or is it an example of unions acting as though it was still 1905? Are unions still relevant in the US today?

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  • Nov 20 2012: "Hostess is closing eliminating 18.500 jobs due, in part, to 5,000 bakery union members striking while the Teamsters had already accepted a deal. True, the company had been mismanaged but this appears to be an example of a union cutting off its nose despite its face."

    Don't you think it would be useful if we first established how much damage the mismanagement did vs. how much damage the strikes did? Also, what would be the point of having unions if they didn't destroy a company once in a while to make an example? Would you always stick to the speed limit if the cops only gave out warnings without ever arresting someone? Part of good management is taking care of the workforce that is the lifeblood of your business.

    "The US has some of the best worker-protection laws in the world."

    It doesn't, but even if it did, how long do you think those laws would survive if billionaire-funded super-PACs that want to do away with those laws go unopposed?

    "Are unions still relevant in the US today?"

    Yes, they are, especially now in this age of rising inequality (which has been going on since the gipper's senile ramblings filled the halls of the White House, with only a short halt in the booming late 90s).
    • Nov 20 2012: "Also, what would be the point of having unions if they didn't destroy a company once in a while to make an example? "

      Wow! If only we lived in heaven, where we would not be hurt by our own actions.
      http://www.nhregister.com/articles/2012/11/16/news/doc50a637359d147224493235.txt?viewmode=fullstory
      "We were gainfully employed. We had benefits," he said. "Now, we have nothing."

      But hey! The out-of-jobs workers can now come together, form a cooperative, and make bread on their own! Get rid of the management and the mismanagement!
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      Nov 20 2012: You're absolutely correct that the company was very poorly managed. They were in serious trouble and the union simply made the situation worse.

      But you make an interesting point that the US doesn't have the best worker protection in the world. That's certainly true. Who has the best? I suspect Norway and Germany would be at or at least near the top. Germany clearly has been able to maintain manufacturing competitiveness with very labor involvement. So there is clearly some middle ground.

      You're also right that inequality is soaring right now.But are unions the right model? That seems to restrictive. What is the optimal model to promote worker mobility, rights, decent salaries, mitigation in terms of layoffs, and something to promote equality?
      • Nov 20 2012: "They were in serious trouble and the union simply made the situation worse."

        That's one way of looking at it, I like to look at it like this: if the management had their act together trouble with the union would not have caused the company to go under.

        "But you make an interesting point that the US doesn't have the best worker protection in the world. That's certainly true. Who has the best? I suspect Norway and Germany would be at or at least near the top. Germany clearly has been able to maintain manufacturing competitiveness with very labor involvement. So there is clearly some middle ground."

        Northwestern European countries have a system where the unions and employers are always on speaking terms and the employers have their own equivalent of a union, the two sides negotiate at predetermined times (often for an entire sector, for example the car industry, at a time) and they never villify each other in the media many people are members of a union and workers are willing to temporarily work fewer hours so the man or woman next to them gets to keep his/her job during a recession. Contrast this with the way things are done in Southern Europe and the US where unions and employers are in a perpetual state of war that is visible in the media. That said, Northwestern unions aren't perfect, they do tend to favor the interests of older workers over those of younger workers, but it's a hell of a lot better than not having unions at all.
      • Nov 20 2012: @Greg Worden: "I suspect Norway and Germany would be at or at least near the top. Germany clearly has been able to maintain manufacturing competitiveness with very labor involvement."

        It's better than the US. At least in western Europe, companies don't make a loss on goods manufactured. However, the prices here cannot compete with East Asian countries. With some things, it is more expensive to transport from China than to make it right here. Such things are made here. Everything else is made in China, Malaysia, Thailand, etc.

        From the NY Times article you cited, "One work rule required that two separate trucks be used to ship bread and cake products to a single retailer". This is a perfect example of the kinds of horror stories I have heard from colleagues who visited our US branches. With such rules in place, it is completely pointless to negotiate salaries. To use a cliché, that's like re-arranging the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic.

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