Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Union Label

“Union supporter” isn’t a description that most would naturally associate with me.  In fact, for most of my professional career I’ve happily worked in non-union situations and whenever given the choice, I tend to opt for the solution that keeps unions out.  Many friends and colleagues are passionate members of their unions and recoil at my brash management prejudice.  As it has since 1894 another Labor Day is upon us.  Aside from it being a long weekend for most workers and the symbolic end to 'summer' – it’s one of the few tangible remnants of the Union heyday.  Despite the fast food worker strike today, conventional thinking largely have Unions being obsolete.  In the current U.S. economic quandary the Unions actually have an opportunity that they haven't taken.
My blog last week generated some interesting dialogues and commentary in a variety of places.  Some of the questions that were raised went beyond the scope of the piece itself.  Does it make sense to have a minimum wage that is the same in New York as in Boise?  The same in Los Angeles as in rural Georgia?  If the theory of the minimum wage is actually a “living” wage – why wouldn’t it be scaled to the cost of living to a region?  Major metropolitan areas like Boston and San Francisco have housing rates that are double what can be found elsewhere.  Kentucky has a very different cost structure than New York.  So if a minimum wage is to cover minimum living costs, why wouldn’t it be scaled?  Excellent points - many of which came from my progressive friends.

The question begets more questions – like who is deciding what the minimums are?  Is business and labor involved in that decision?  Or is it just politicians pandering to their various constituencies?  Maybe the answer is for a calculation to be done based on certain metrics and the wage is determined by math.  My default instinct is to exclude government wherever possible when decisions about people’s lives are concerned, so who determines that calculation becomes the important. 
Many worry that without a minimum wage that business would exploit workers in its never ending march towards a better bottom line.  In that quest, what’s the best way to protect individual workers from exploitation?  Is it government inserting itself and dictating what each business should pay its workers?  This is the role of a Union.  Without a minimum wage Unions would have the opportunity to step into the void and represent millions of workers who aren’t represented now.  Business could opt to ignore the union, but at some point - as in the past - business will want a worker who won't proceed without having their demands met.  History shows us that a balance between labor and management can be found and each side can coexist, and often thrive.  Eliminating the minimum wage would expand Union membership and increase its power.
I spent the majority of my career in Hollywood.  To produce a major film that you go to and see in the movie theatres involves anywhere from 18 to 20 different unions.  The pay scales of those workers are dramatically above the minimum wage.  And even when the product fails (“The Lone Ranger” this summer is expected to lose $200 million for Disney) the company doesn’t go belly-up and it certainly doesn’t have its hand out to the Government for a bailout.

Unions and business can coexist – and thrive, like in Hollywood.  Government does have a regulatory role to play...but it isn't appropriate to dictate the cost basis of every industry.  As we all look towards celebrating Labor’s accomplishments with a burger or a hot dog, let’s consider supporting Unions:  get government out of the picture and eliminate the minimum wage.  It might just put the Union label back where it belongs.

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