The Corner

Re: Unions and Productivity

From a reader:

Dear Jonah,

 

I’m following the debate concerning Unions and Productivity that you’ve hosted on NRO, and found it quite abstract. I live in the Rust Belt, where there are still plenty of “job shops” as they are called, and everyone who works in the field knows that is technology that has:

 

a)Lowered wages in the skilled trades

 

b)Realizes that no shop owner in his/her right mind would allow unionization. Automation has turned products that once required skilled metal workers into commodities. The margins are just not there anymore.

 

In just one generation I have seen the wages of skilled tool and die makers drop from an average of $25/hour to about $15/ hour. CNC machines, laser cutters, and wire EDM machines can not only do work more accurate than a human, but much faster as well. Why keep a journeyman toolmaker on staff when a 19 year old high school drop who is willing to work for $9/hour will do?

 

The gentleman who says that having high paid union workers forces a firm to invest in capital improvements misses the point. The firm can easily go to a machine company and lease the equipment.Why would the shop owner even consider unionizing his firm in the 1st place? The only union shops I know of around here are directly tied with automotive. The mom and pop shops cannot unionize for the simple reason that they cannot afford to.

 

One can even go a step further and ask, why would I even want to pay someone $9/hour to do something that requires very little skill, and thus can be easily replicated by Mexicans or Indians-but at a much lower price? A shop owner today realizes that the real value in his firm lies in those people who can sell his product, support the product, and engineer it. Ergo, the $9/hour job heads to Juarez or Bombay. (It doesn’t help when local politicians demand “living wages” for jobs that cannot possibly warrant that). It is the salesman, customer service tech, and engineer who keep their jobs.

 

Automation and its use supersedes the union debate. Automation unfortunately commoditizes once highly sought after skill sets. I work in IT and have watched once the “creative destruction” up close and personal. Who needs programmers who can write code in Assembler for an IBM Mainframe, or administer a Novel Netware server farm? I cannot imagine the IT field being unionized. If it was, we would still be employing  8 bit DOS based programmers.

 

Unions constantly fight to keep unproductive positions intact; that is their job. It isn’t that the workers are lazy, it is just that their skills are obsolete.

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