8:00 AM EST, February 9, 2013
I take issue with much of Lane Windham's recent commentary ("If not labor unions, then what?" Jan. 29) beginning with the fundamental premise that it was the unions that provided us with economic redistribution. Like many other academicians, Ms. Windham confuses correlation with causation throughout her thought process. The simple presence of unions in the United States during our rise as the undisputed economic world leader does not establish them as the cause of a better or fairer distribution of wealth.
From 1947 to 1973, there are some other factors besides unions involved, not the least of which is the lack of any serious manufacturing competition throughout the entire world. Additionally, U.S. manufacturing capabilities were on steroids following World War II while other traditional manufacturing competitors were either devastated or in great disarray. Effectively, the world was clamoring for U.S. products and services while they were rebuilding their domestic production capabilities. These conditions gave the nation a tremendous base of both blue-collar and white-collar employment that resulted in the world's largest and most affluent middle class. Throughout this period, there never was a majority of unionized labor, yet somehow in spite of that, the world's largest middle class grew.
The writer also asserts that falling union membership caused an increase in the income divide. What is undoubtedly more significant is that since 1973 the U.S. started to lose much of its manufacturing advantage to foreign competition such as Japan and the upstart Asian economies.
The loss of manufacturing competitive advantage was due to higher wage and benefit costs and the lack of agility and flexibility due to rigid work rules negotiated by the unions. These challenges led to companies closing their non-competitive facilities, in many cases because they could not negotiate union concessions that would have led to improved productivity. Often, the union stance was they'd rather lose jobs than accept concessions on wages, benefits and work rules, and so they did. As these jobs disappeared, so did our middle class and a more even distribution of wealth.
It's probably true that America's citizens never got the kinds of universal health care programs, job insurance, or wage guarantees that benefited European workers, but they also haven't inherited the accompanying debt of these nations. It's also true that even today foreigners still prefer to immigrate to the U.S. than any other country in the world, and we still have people coming from all over the world to seek our medical services and skills. That being the case, I'm not sure why anyone would want to hold up the European socialist experience as desirous.
As to your closing question about what alternative to unions might temper the inequalities of the global economy, I suggest something she and others in academia just do not understand. To be a leader, even a survivor, in a global economy a country must be globally competitive and agile through constantly increased productivity. Only the creation of wealth through the transformation of natural resources into products of perceived value, and the provision of demanded services, provides economic redistribution. It seems to me that, as their membership roles suggest, the American working public is telling the unions that they do not believe they have the answer.
Michael P. Maturo, North Haven, Conn.
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