Union relevancy

July 1, 2010
Last month, in a runoff election for Arkansas senatorial candidacy, labor unions including the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, and others

Last month, in a runoff election for Arkansas senatorial candidacy, labor unions including the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, and others expended nearly $10 million and untold effort to persuade voters to replace incumbent Democrat Blanche Lincoln by union-friendly contender Bill Halter. What motivated the unions to become so involved in this particular political race? Lincoln voted for NAFTA in November 1993; the House of Representatives Bill 4444 to permanently establish trade relations with China in May 2000; and CAFTA in July 2005. Perhaps the final straw for unions is Lincoln's opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, which if enacted, would further protect activists against retaliatory firing, and allow a union to represent employees in bargaining with an employer, if a simple majority of workers votes that it stand for them.

In a downplayed victory, Lincoln won her nomination for the coming Senate race against Republican John Boozman. It's another in a line of recent defeats for American unions.

On the other side of the globe, Chinese workers in various parts of the country are carrying out an increasing number of successful labor strikes for better wages and working conditions. Most publicized are those at Denso Guangzhou Nansha and electronic parts suppliers that have caused shutdowns at Honda, Toyota, and most recently, Apple. Technically, labor unions in China are illegal, though collective bargaining between factory employers and workers is unofficially allowed.

Make no mistake that Chinese labor activism diverges from any taking place stateside. Books abound on the topic of how Chinese negotiation differs from western styles; one of the most popular on the subject is by journalist and businessman James McGregor — One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China. A key point: Where Americans want binding contracts, brokering Chinese look to evolve ongoing relationships towards their personal advantage. If you've ever shopped in China, you may have experienced a taste of this approach: Many prices there are variable, and much is sold through haggling; negotiations for products are almost playful, and performed with colossal perseverance.

That said, the present Chinese strikes haven't been particularly playful or frivolous; wages are meager, and some working conditions are notoriously brutal, fodder for countless jaw-dropping video snippets on YouTube. Likewise, unemployment and wage stagnation are occurring in the United States; perhaps for these reasons, despite negative sentiment, U.S. union membership has grown slightly over the last few years. However, labor activism in China is currently most effective because no labor force in the world is waiting in the wings to take the low-paying jobs of Chinese workers should they walk off the job. The same cannot be said for U.S. positions, which is why we need holistic approaches that leverage creativity, instead of maneuvering, to make manufacturing beneficial for all.

About the Author

Elisabeth Eitel

Elisabeth Eitel was a Senior Editor at Machine Design magazine until 2014. She has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Fenn College at Cleveland State University.

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