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June 2002 • Vol 2, No. 6 •

BusinessUnionism’s Dilemma:
More Production Is Costing Jobs

By Charles Walker


While organized labor agonizes over jobs lost to overseas workers, it may be that at least as many jobs, if not far more, are lost when domestic corporations achieve productivity gains. Yet, organized labor does very little to offset the job losses that result from new machinery and automated processes or plain old-fashioned speed-up. Certainly, organized labor doesn’t mount high-profile campaigns like the one that featured Teamsters at the Mexican border, protesting Mexican truckers driving over, or the current AFL-CIO campaign against congressional “fast-track” for so-called free-trade legislation.

Labor’s strategists seemingly are deeply concerned about the joblessness that results from the transfer of work to other countries. Shouldn’t American workers ask why labor’s strategists are not showing the same concern about productivity-related job-cutting that’s daily going on right before the labor chieftains’ eyes? It can’t be because the productivity-driven job losses aren’t heavy-duty, because they most certainly are. For example, the Labor Department reported on May 8, “productivity—the amount of output per hour of work—soared at an 8.6 percent annual rate in the January-March period, after a strong 5.5 percent rate in the previous quarter.” (AP)

That increase in productivity was the highest in 19 years, and resulted in companies cutting jobs, according to the Labor Department. While output rose at a “solid 6.5 percent,” the number of hours worked fell at a 1.9 percent rate. It’s not clear how many jobs were lost during the first three months of this year because of the new, faster pace; but, according to an economist with Naroff Economic Advisors, workers were under tremendous pressure to produce more. “Companies managed to squeeze every ounce of production out of their workers and it showed,” he said. Even if fewer workers had turned out the same quantity of goods and services, there would have been a rise in productivity. But that’s not what happened. The report states that fewer workers turned out more than was produced before the pink slips were handed out.

The thing about productivity gains under capitalism is that the gains and the inevitable job losses are profit-driven. And the drive for profits is spurred by competition; the ever-present fear that a larger fish will take the smaller fish to lunch. In other words, creating joblessness is an act of self-defense for the individual capitalist firm. If that sounds anti-social that’s because it is. But the larger point is that productivity-driven joblessness is built into the very economic system today that workers are depending on for their security.

Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization. Progress is born of agitation. It is agitation or stagnation.…

—Eugene V. Debs, in a speech of 1918

Does that mean that short of replacing the economic system itself, workers have no alternative, but to learn to live with job insecurity? Of course, an economic system based on human needs and welfare, rather than profits and greed, would permanently solve the job-security predicament; but there’s also a partial solution—a solution that has occurred to American workers more than once. That solution is to cut the length of the workday. The successful fight for the eight-hour day (kicked-off in the U.S. in the wake of the American Civil War) undoubtedly forced bosses to give a paycheck to countless workers. And later, during the Great Depression (1929-1939), workers again fought to reduce the workweek from 48 then to 44 and again to a 40-hour week. Reducing the workday and the workweek with no reduction in pay was not only popular with jobless workers; it also meant a better life for the employed.

The demand for thirty hours work for forty hours take-home pay became increasingly popular during the 1930’s. However, one of the casualties of WWII was the notion that it was high time to once again shorten the workday. Still, as late as 1949, the AFL Electrical Workers said, “we don’t know how long present employment will continue, but we must be prepared to move toward a shorter work week.” The union’s position was prompted by the fear that mass unemployment like that of the 1930’s might soon return, as four million workers were jobless and “nine million more were working part-time—many of them not more than 20 hours a week,” said the CIO.

Although many unions tell workers that unions brought workers the weekend, workers don’t see union bumper stickers reminding them that unions once fought for a shorter workday. In fact, many workers under fifty or so probably think that the normal state of affairs is to work more than eight hours daily, work split shifts, work weekends at straight time, and be thankful they’re not temps.

Since the 1970s, concessionary bargaining by the unions has become a big part of their strategic approach to corporate cries for more profits, as international competition once again took hold. And a big part of the concessions was “job-downsizing.” For example, the current autoworkers contract with General Motors virtually insures that 13,000 auto jobs will be history before the contract ends, according to labor analyst Kim Moody. Perhaps the union presence is slowing down the rate of attrition, but make no mistake; General Motors believes it’s in the position to build more cars than ever, even as it “downsizes.”

Why should workers endure the burden of joblessness and insecurity, especially in a ten trillion dollar economy? Would the system break down if truly full employment provided all workers with the incomes necessary for a modern, civilized life? Certainly, capitalism is partly premised on workers competing against one another for scarce jobs, which gives the bosses the whip hand over workers. The fight for jobs, then, is an endless battle, as long as the bosses, not the workers, rule. Still, as history shows it’s possible to carry on a successful fight for more jobs. A successful fight for jobs has three advantages for workers. One, more jobs; and two, during the course of the fight workers gain a deeper understanding of the capitalist system and how to beat it; and three, workers learn the critical importance for workers’ solidarity that’s strong enough to overcome gender, race, and ethnic differences.

Historically, unions have led the fight for shorter workdays and thus, more jobs. But the leaders of U.S. unions act as if their jobs would be on the line should they lead a real fight for jobs. Despite today’s union officialdom’s claims to honor labor their kind of leadership—bureaucratic misleadership—did not end the twelve-hour day more than a generation ago, and it most certainly didn’t enable workers to win the 8-hour day and 40-hour week.





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