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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

September 11, 2009 at 10:20 AM

Does the Charleston vote turn us into competitive toast?

Top of the News: So what are we to make of the decision by workers at the former Vought — now Boeing — plant in North Charleston, S.C., to become non-union?

The move isn’t particularly surprising. The conservative South has long held unions in the disdain that some of the most passionate commenters to our Boeing stories do: as bastions of laziness, goon leadership and the sure path to losing one’s job. The South is the poster child for Thomas Frank’s thesis (in What’s the Matter With Kansas) of working people voting against their self-interest.

Given the region’s relatively low wages and sky-high unemployment, whatever Boeing chooses to pay its workers will be better than the average job. The politics that suffuse South Carolina (Gov. Mark Sanford, Rep. Joe “The Heckler” Wilson, Sen. Jim DeMint, who wants to “break” the president) help make it especially tough organizing ground for unions. And labor law changes over the past 25 years have made it much easier for companies to use scare tactics to keep unions out. So, no real surprise.

It is interesting to see the double-standards of the union-haters. Organized labor has over-reached in the past, to be sure. But it’s hard to find many examples in recent years. Meanwhile, top executives get a pass on their bad decisions, even as their compensation costs companies huge sums unprecedented in American history. Union-haters trust them to do the right thing by workers. Or, as some would have it, the employee is free to sell his or her labor on the open market. Tell that to the 26 million unemployed or underemployed Americans.

But it’s a global market and union wages are uncompetitive. By that logic, so are wages paid in the South, no matter how docile and cooperative the labor force. Ask the hundreds of thousands of non-union workers laid off in the textile, apparel and furniture industries and are now working at Wal-Mart, if they’re lucky. By that logic, the inevitable conclusion is that we’re going to have to rework some trade agreements, or watch docilely as our living standards align somewhere with those of workers in the developing world.

Love them or hate them, unions are responsible for every decent working condition non-union workers now take for granted. As part of the marketplace pluralism of America for decades, they helped create the greatest middle class in history. Now that balance has been lost, and the losers aren’t just da goons at da union hall.

The Seattle region’s situation is uncertain. As consultant Scott Hamilton pointed out in the Times‘ story, Boeing has an interest in using the experienced, skilled labor force here, which, after all is fixing the problems of the outsourcing blunders by Boeing bosses, including those from the South Carolina plant. If the unions here are sufficiently cowed, Boeing will remain short-term. If the key factor is a global race to the bottom, the outlook is cloudy. But quality work doesn’t come from the bottom, particularly for high-tech, high-talent industries.

You get what you pay for. Our region offers high quality talent and experience. That costs money.

Now you can have your say. I have on my Kevlar and am braced for incoming.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

A solemn number

Nine eleven. We pause, pray

No more need be said

Comments | More in Aerospace/Boeing

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