Unions and the Made in America Challenge

February 27, 2011

ABC TV has just started a high profile news series related to the concept of Buying American – called the Made in America Challenge. It may become a PR success, but it will be an economic failure.  Where would Disney – the owner of ABC – get all of the items sold at its stores and theme parks if it could only stock its shelves with items made in America?

Don’t get me wrong.  I want America to once again actually make stuff in our own factories. But the truth is the world has changed… and there is no going back.

It is only when the price of labor and manufacture here in the US… drops to a point lower than the cost of labor and manufacture overseas plus shipping from the point of manufacture will there be any hope of an American manufacturing comeback. Alternatively, some other intangible or externality will need to trump economics, such as national security.

This sort of Buy American campaign has been tried before. The clip below was shown on TV nation-wide 30 years ago… way before the internet changed our buying habits and eliminated the need for most bricks and mortar stores… and allowing anyone with access to the internet, and a credit card,  to shop worldwide to compare prices (and buy without paying tax!).

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s a now defunct union – the once proud and powerful International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union or ILGWU – sponsored a mass market advertising campaign to remind Americans to buy American goods made by American workers – at the same time they tried to remind viewsers what unions historically accomplished for all Americans- especially those who earn their living laboring for someone else.

History shows the “Look For the Union Label” campaign failed on several fronts.

  • The outsourcing of American Jobs accelerated – as more mills closed and cheaper sources of labor were exploited overseas.  The “patriotic” advertising campaign of WalMart (at the time) to BUY AMERICAN, failed (or succeeded, if you count PR value) and now you are hard pressed to find anything – anything – still made in America at WalMart or any other store.
  • Americans (particularly those who are not union members), by and large, no longer see any value to unions.
  • The Union itself had to merge to remain viable as their membership base shrank.  There is no ILGWU any more.

Regardless, my family and I were not union members – especially not members of the ILGWU – while I was growing up in New York City, but that union helped us anyway.

We lived in the borough of Brooklyn… and my parents dreamed of moving to the heart of the Big Apple – Manhattan. We couldn’t afford the rents… so we stayed in Brooklyn.

But thanks to the ILGWU, we were given (as were thousands of other New Yorkers, regardless of race, creed or color) an opportunity.  A huge housing project – a middle income cooperative, was developed in Chelsea through an innovative public/private partnership.  The city condemned land, the ILGWU lent money, and a transformative development took shape.  President Kennedy and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt laid the cornerstone.  This massive housing complex – the ILGWU – Penn South Co-Op –  remade Chelsea from a slum into an aspirational neighborhood. And in order to get in and live in one of the apartments, you needed to fit into strict income criteria, and be on a waiting list. I think we were on that list 10 years before an apartment opened up.  But, eventually, when I was a sophomore in HS, we moved into our new apartment. It was smaller than we needed, but we were in Manhattan.  And after a couple more years, we were able to move to a larger one that allowed my brother and me to get our own rooms.  My mom lived out her life in that apartment. And for a while, while she was still alive, my kids and I visited her every year and stayed with her, in our old apartment, in the shadow of the Empire State Building.

So for me the union was not about trying to get better working and safety conditions (think Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that killed 146 in an overcrowded NYC sweatshop 100 years ago next month – one of the atrocities that helped create the ILGWU)  – but about the union’s efforts to better living conditions for all Americans. The ILGWU literally helped remake New York City, which helped countless thousands of residents in Chelsea and Midtown, including businesses and the tax base, not to mention kids like me.

And even though I became a union member twice in my life, I have spent the vast majority of my life in non-union employment situations. Not by choice, by the way, but that is just the way the vast number of media employers I have worked with and for have preferred it.

My first union job occurred was when I was a public sector employee working for the Office for the Aging of the City of New York as a social service planner. This was my first real job after graduating from Bennington.

I literally used the union to file a grievance to fight a perceived pay injustice. A pay differential I had been granted because of my education and experience had been wiped out in a general pay increase granted all City workers.  I thought it was wrong, because I would be getting no raise.  Everyone with a similar job title was now being paid what I got. I lost the differential, because I got no increase.  Now how could that be right?  I think I was earning the princely sum of $7,800 a year, so a few hundred more bucks in my pocket would go a long way.

Fortunately, I had a union to help me file a grievance. With their help, I could literally fight city hall. And win.

My union – Victor Gotbaum’s District Council 37 took up the case.  They agreed the City was  screwing me out of 600 dollars a year. Again, not a princely sum, but it was as much the principle as those few bucks, which really mattered to me when I was just starting out.  The case took a couple of years to wind through various appeals, and eventually wound up in arbitration.

My arbitrator was Peter Seitz – the same man who ultimately ruled for an end to Major League Baseball’s reserve clause, ending the practice of one baseball team owning a player for life (something akin to slavery, some would argue). By the way, without the union that represents baseball players, players never would had the power to earn what they are worth on what is now a real open market. Before the union, many Major League Baseball Players played for the minimum – $6,000 a year – a figure that was unchanged for 20 years, because of the power of the owners.

Anyway, Seitz listened to my union, and then listened to the City of New York… and in about 9 seconds decided he heard enough… He eventually ruled in my favor… telling the City they were wrong.  I got my back pay.

The only other time I have been a union member was when the Hollywood production company I worked for tried to outfox the Teamsters. I moved to LA to get out of news and into writing sitcoms.  The closest I could do to support myself as I wrote was to be a driver for a production company that made sitcoms.  They thought by signing an agreement with NABET – the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians – to make those of us who were drivers, union drivers, NABET Drivers, they could thus avoid paying drivers Teamster wages.  They were wrong. The teamsters demonstrated loudly and forcefully wherever we shot on location all over LA… shutting down production on my show (the sitcom – Sledgehammer). Eventually an agreement was reached.  If the show went to a second season, and it did… they drivers would all be Teamsters.  I left the production before I became Teamster. I did not move to Hollywood to have a career driving a truck… though if I had stayed I might have had some kind of retirement plan.

Look – even though I am a graduate of the Yale School of Management, I come from a long line of union activists. My aunt was the administrator of the Furrier, Leather and Machine Worker’s Joint Board in New York.  My cousin (who I grew up with in Brooklyn, the same guy who played basketball for at Lincoln HS) – was an executive with the Teamsters in Anchorage. And my mother and father’s parents were very involved in union causes.  Especially racial equality, social progress… My goodness, there it is again… that theme of trying to level the playing field in what they perceived was a very stratified American economic reality.

I understand the economic arguments.  But my heart does not give me the luxury of doing what the appointed school board just did in Providence, Rhode Island (at the request of the Democratic Mayor of that town) – firing all the teachers in the school district, so management can hire back who management wants for whatever management wants.  How can an employee live like that?

The unions didn’t cause the economic crisis in this country.  They didn’t cause the growing shortfall in the Social Security System. They didn’t cause the deficits in Wisconsin. Or Rhode Island.

The cause was politicians who negotiated contracts and then didn’t fund them.  The politicians took the easy way out. They wanted to get re-elected.  They raided funds that should have been untouched because they wanted… how does the saying go… kick the can down the road and avoid tough decisions they should have had the cahones to make decades ago.

Another co-conspirator was an unregulated investment banking industry – just like an unregulated savings and loan banking industry a couple of decades ago – that brought the US economy to its knees… forcing industries to close, the tax base to shrink, unemployment to sky rocket, and our country to the brink of bankruptcy.

How do they operate? Anything for a buck. Short term gain. Bonus.  Short term gain.  Mega Bonus.  Short term gain. Bonus beyond any form of human comprehension.

And how do you make more money.  Well one way is to sell broke governments more bonds, whether it is good for them or not.  Cheap credit. Whether it could be repaid or not. The same thing they did for mortgages.

Hello Hamptons – Good Bye – Long term consequences.

I have modest proposal for the Republicans in Wisconsin and Ohio currently trying to destroy collective bargaining and organized labor.

I know you are not into equity.  At least social equity. You are into busting the unions, and then hitting up those very same public institutions for the contracts when you buy public assets at fire-sale prices.  And Republicans aren’t the only ones guilty of this “private sector can do it better” nonsense – can someone say Morgan Stanley / privatizing parking meter deal here in Chicago?

Before you go trampling on contracts and promises made to a workforce over a lifetime of service – and unilaterally destroy your political opposition – the unions – the one national voice that counter balances (remember it is all about checks and balances in America) the steam roller effect of big business/big government – you should try eliminating all lobbyists first. Actually make it a crime to communicate with a member of the executive or legislative branch of the government of Wisconsin if you were paid anything to influence the outcome of any legislation.

Let’s see how many tax breaks can get passed, or how much legislation can be passed, or how many special interests can be served, if we left the legislating to those who were elected and not to the surrogates of industry paid handsomely to influence that legislation.

Short of that, eliminating the power of labor to negotiate a decent living wage and basic benefits for current employees and retirees will eventually serve to bring jobs back to America… as more people compete for fewer jobs, at lower wages, and no benefits and thus drive wages and the living standards of the working class here in American down even more.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joel Packer February 28, 2011


you should get greater distribution for this timely piece . Use your network (even if its your Yale network).

Get the idea?

Eric And Joan March 1, 2011

Hi cuz.
You are pitch perfect. Grandma Anna and your mom would approve. Family Lore holds Anna was scheduled to work the first shift on that fateful March day in 1911. Thankfully Uncle Sam came down with pneumonia so the gonnifs who owned Triangle missed the opportunity to cut short the trade union blood line of the Gventers.
Love you cuz. Keep it up.

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