GM strikers play a dangerous game

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Here are two industries I don’t closely follow: automotive and labor unions. That latter is one I should probably watch more carefully, seeing as unions have historically played an important role in American work life. I certainly get a lot of press releases from them announcing new bills in Congress or lawsuits against employers.

The fact is that, like many white-collar workers of my generation, I’m deeply ambivalent about labor unions. Take this General Motors strike that began yesterday. (For a thorough analysis, read this excellent article in this week’s TIME by Jyoti Thottam titled GM’s Get-Well Plan.) According to our Ag:

The United Auto Workers called its 73,000 GM workers out on strike yesterday for the first national industrial action at the company since 1970. GM and the UAW are at loggerheads over wages and job security for U.S. workers worried about jobs moving overseas.

If picketing workers were hoping the strike would rally the public to its cause, that didn’t seem to be panning out. Here’s what Bloomberg’s Doron Levin writes:

For those who believe General Motors Corp. is in the midst of spectacular turnaround from its many woes, yesterday’s walkout by the United Auto Workers union was a dose of reality.

The No. 1 U.S. automaker still hasn’t resolved the central threat to its future: an acrimonious relationship with GM factory workers in the U.S. Workers ought to be a team, united with one another in pursuit of common goals on behalf of the company. Striking workers, instead, are the adversaries of managers, shareholders, dealers and lenders.

That’s one columnist’s opinion. Me, I side with workers by default in any dispute with management. So why does a union-led strike rub me the wrong way? I’m trying to figure that out myself. After all, the GM workers are only asking for what they were promised, like health insurance upon retirement. But when I see the salaried schlubs filing past the picket lines, it makes me wonder if they’re working for two different companies.

I’m aware of how much unions have done for workers’ rights–in gaining us better pay, status and time off, among many other things people my age take for granted. In fact, as a non-manager at Time Inc., I’m covered by a union, though I’m not an active, paying member. I know this union battles management on my behalf. But as a professional, I have more say–not to mention the ability to vote with my feet. Unions exist to represent the underrepresented, the hourly workers who don’t have the voice or the luxury to quit.

Lord knows management will take every advantage possible of lowly workers, and that their motives can be ignoble (shareholders are NOT more important than employees). But it seems to me striking workers at the already staggering GM risk cutting off their noses to spite their faces, if you’ll allow me the boring cliché.

I don’t have a magic solution (do you?), but I do know that as a consumer, I’m less likely to patronize a business that I know to be involved in employee disputes. That’s why a strike is a union’s trump card: it threatens the business and therefore gooses a reluctant and stingy management. But if the business wanes, then it follows that payrolls must too necessarily tighten. And I don’t think anyone wants to see 73,000 autoworkers out of work.