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Jon Talton

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

Category: Labor unions
September 15, 2011 at 10:20 AM

Wrong battle on the waterfront

It wouldn’t be Seattle without protests. So this week’s meeting of the American Association of Port Authorities here has seen rallies by activists over disputes with the Port of Seattle. Calling it the “Port of Poverty and Pollution,” the protesters have especially targeted Port CEO Tay Yoshitani and a raise that has made him “one of the highest paid port officials in the nation.”

One of the issues behind the acrimony is a complex and long-running dispute between the port and the Teamsters over short-distance (drayage) trucking. The Teamsters would naturally like to see all these drivers organized. Right now, most are independent contractors. On some days these drivers might make minimum wage or less.

Bearing in mind that some readers consider me the Seattle Times‘ in-house socialist, my view is this fight picks the wrong target and does it in such a personal way as to alienate support for its legitimate goals.

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Comments | More in Labor unions, Ports of Seattle and Tacoma

July 12, 2011 at 9:55 AM

‘Industrial policy’? America already has one (that’s not working)

Those who hold the superstition that an Ayn Rand “free market” is the cure to all ills — despite its disastrous results in 2008, etc. — meet every constructive idea to get the American economy out of the ditch with: “That’s industrial policy!” Industrial policy, you see, is always some failed commie central planning nightmare from the Soviet Union and eastern Europe circa 1980. And that’s been swept into the dust-bin of history.

In fact, America does have an industrial policy, one constructed by years of often convoluted, often ineffective measures produced by Congress and presidents, pushed by the army of lobbyists for the connected huge corporate interests.

American industrial policy includes big tax cuts for the wealthiest and legal tax dodges for big corporations; special treatment for a few big exporters such as Boeing and Caterpillar; huge agricultural subsidies; encouragement to offshore jobs; the Military-Industrial Complex (Iraq will buy F-16s from Uncle Sam); taxpayer backing for deregulated Wall Street and the TBTF banks no matter what they do; union-busting NLRBs; heavy subsidies for house building, especially sprawl, and house ownership; more subsidies for the fossil fuels industries; decades of federal support for airlines and freeways, but not trains and transit; a for-profit health system supported by Washington; incentives for job-killing mergers; failure to protect small competitors with antitrust enforcement against consolidation. I could go on. But none of this comes from the benign magic of the “free market.”

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Comments | More in Health care, Housing, Income/living standards, Industrial policy, Infrastructure, Jobs/Unemployment, Labor unions, Manufacturing, Politics and the economy

June 30, 2011 at 9:50 AM

The president and the unions: The community organizer isn’t a labor organizer

The dominant media theme is that President Obama “is on the defensive” because of the NLRB ruling that Boeing broke the law by moving some 787 production to a non-union plant in North Charleston in direct retaliation against unions in the Puget Sound. Amid the sliver of progressive bloggers, the headline is something like, “Obama to unions: Drop dead.”

Yet the president made two perfectly sensible points: “As a general proposition, companies need to have the freedom to relocate,” but they must follow the law when doing so. And, “What I think defies common sense would be a notion that we would be shutting down a plant or laying off workers because labor and management can’t come to a sensible agreement.” The chief executive shouldn’t insert himself into the process any more than this.

After decades of a business-dominated NLRB making pro-management rulings, now some are shocked that the federal agency charged with ensuring balance between business and labor should actually attempt to do so. Yet it’s just that balance, along with the right to organize and bargain collectively in the private sector, that is a cornerstone of American democracy. It also played no small role in lower income inequality. The rise of business power has had the opposite effect, while offshoring millions of jobs and, emboldened by deregulation and the big money to drive self-serving policies, driving the economy into a ditch.

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Comments | More in Jobs/Unemployment, Labor unions, Politics and the economy

June 24, 2011 at 10:15 AM

Charlotte and Seattle, tales of two cities

Some 100 business and civic leaders from Charlotte, host of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, have been in Seattle this week as part of the Charlotte Chamber’s annual inter-city visit. The chamber there has been doing these gigs for more than 50 years to learn best practices from other cities. According to the Charlotte Business Journal, “Potential areas of interest for the Charlotte contingent include Seattle’s renowned library system (a particularly relevant topic, given the recent struggles here), signature downtown projects (the historic Pioneer Square District and the Pike Place Market), economic development, transportation and the arts.”

I was business editor and columnist at the Charlotte Observer for nearly five years, ending in 2000. When I got there, it seemed like Hooterville with a couple of giant skyscrapers. By the time I left, it was the nation’s second largest banking center with a gleaming, Oz-like skyline. It has been battered by the Great Recession, losing one of its two precious money center banks. Fiscal troubles have ravaged its schools and library system. Still, it can claim the only modern light-rail system in the South and an amazing amount of affluence thanks to being home to Bank of America and Duke Energy.

Two cities could not be more different. Although Charlotte is more populous (731,524 vs. 608,660), Seattle seems like the bigger city, partly because Seattle is denser and Charlotte is sprawled out and car-dependent. So lessons for Charlotte? Continuous reinvention and economic diversity (don’t be dependent on the banks), stewardship and non-profit strength, seek global business and love your downtown. The Queen City, as Charlotte styles itself (ironic, given our former monicker), is not going to get Bill Gates or Bill Boeing or world-class software, bio-tech and world health clusters. It won’t get a port. The suburban University of North Carolina at Charlotte is no UW.

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Comments | More in Aerospace/Boeing, Deficit, Downtown and urban issues, Eurozone, Federal debt/deficit, Labor unions, Microsoft, Urban issues

April 21, 2011 at 9:40 AM

NLRB ruling: A speed bump on the race to the bottom

Excuse me for not getting hysterical over the National Labor Relations Board ruling that Boeing violated federal labor law by building a second 787 line at a non-union plant in South Carolina to retaliate against union workers here for past strikes.

Boeing was hardly subtle in its demand for “labor peace” here as it claimed to be assessing whether to build the new assembly in the Puget Sound region or at the newly acquired factory in North Charleston. I spent years as a manager of unionized workers; one of the first things I was taught was how to manage within labor law. It wasn’t hard, usually involving being fair and showing common sense. After decades of labor boards that tilted heavily toward big business, maybe this isn’t standard procedure any more. If the ruling were to be upheld, which it won’t, it would be another management bungle to add to the long list associated with the Dreamliner. It would be interesting to see an accounting of management mistakes vs. the cost of strikes. Oh, well…

As much as the union-haters hate it, the right to strike is “a fundamental right guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act,” as NLRB Acting General Counsel Lafe Solomon said. Whether it would ever be smart for Boeing’s unions to use it again is another issue. Another strike in our lifetimes, and the McBoeing management in Chicago would do everything it could to shut down jets in Jet City.

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Comments | More in Aerospace/Boeing, Labor unions

January 21, 2011 at 9:35 AM

Looking beneath the anti-union label of South Carolina’s governor

New South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has this for organized labor, particularly the Machinists that would aim to organize the Boeing plant in North Charleston: “There’s no secret I don’t like the unions. We are a right-to-work state. I will do everything I can to defend the fact we are a right-to-work state. We are pro-business by nature. I want us to continue to be pro-business. If they don’t like what I said, I’m sorry, that’s how I feel.”

No need to apologize. But how’s that hatred of unions and “pro-business” stance been working out for the Palmetto State?

Unemployment was among the worst in the nation during the Great Recession (and the “business friendly” unemployment trust fund was essentially insolvent, requiring a federal bailout). The jobless rate stood at 10.6 percent in November, down from 12.3 percent in the same month of 2009, but far worse than Washington’s 9.2 percent.

South Carolina has used lavish incentives (i.e., industrial policy) to aggressively court major manufacturers. Its biggest coup was BMW, but it’s lost out more often to other Southern states. And South Carolina was hardly immune from the loss of factory jobs that hit America after China joined the World Trade Organization. From March 2001 to June 2008, South Carolina lost 78,000 manufacturing jobs, 4.3 percent of its total. During the same period, the nation lost 3.4 million, 2.6 percent, while Washington state lost 24,900, 0.9 percent.

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April 23, 2010 at 10:13 AM

Picking through the trash for clues on the short-lived garbage strike

Outsiders never really know what goes on inside labor negotiations, but one thing is clear. The Teamsters are a much more sophisticated union than their old reputation would have many people believe. In ending its walkout against Waste Management, the union played a weak hand with skill.

Protections for union workers have eroded so much over the past several decades that Teamsters members could have lost jobs to replacement workers. Also, a strike that left garbage uncollected would have made citizens more angry with striking workers than with the management of a highly profitable company.

As the comments this post will no doubt generate will show, many working-class Americans no longer identify their economic interests with that of unions. Organized labor has long been shrinking in the private sector. As Americans became affluent from the 1950s through the 1970s, they identified more with the wealthy — an irony considering many of their gains came thanks to the blood and work of unions in the first half of the 20th century. Corporations and right-wing media trash-talk have done a good job of demonizing labor, helped sometimes by labor over-reaching (Both FDR and Harry Truman disliked unions).

As organized labor has diminished, American wages have stagnated and income inequality has reached historic highs. Pensions and good benefits have dwindled. But many of the Americans most hurt also hate unions, and envy the locals that bargain decent middle-class wages for their members. CEOs and the corporate oligarchy get a free pass. This situation seems to grow as the middle class sees its living standards come under ever-increasing pressure. Strange.

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Comments | More in Income/living standards, Labor unions

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