Some, far over on the right, want the UAW to be seen as the main cause of decline in the United States’ auto manufacturing industry. No doubt high wages, benefits and worker protections reduced plant efficiency in some ways, yet work-force morale stayed high and union members endured fewer stresses from fear and uncertainty, season to season, year to year. Auto managements’ own shortcomings contributed more to that decline through errors in planning and design. By ignoring people’s needs in favor of artfully hyped-up public tastes, good sense suffered in the board rooms and the industry failed to match foreign competition well before Honda and Toyota started making cars here in this country. Locating in “right to work” states? “Right to work” just means no unions defend workers’ rights while employers have unrestrained freedom to do whatever they please to labor, within the general laws of state and nation, which can change with political wind. These Japanese companies seem to have exercised fairly enlightened personnel policies so that their workers had low motivation to organize.
In the nineteen fifties and sixties, Union Oil Company of California exercised similar strategy at its Richmond storage and transfer facilities. Workers were well paid, treated well and stayed fairly content. This was partly because staff organization was small, allowing much direct acquaintance and frequent contact between operators and management people. In larger organizations, mediation becomes useful. Union stewards and representatives assure fair notice and handling of grievances. Where management is considerate, policy sensible and decisions not arbitrary, grievance filings are seldom frivolous. Few formal hearings and little arbitration is needed. In the sixties and seventies, Caterpillar Tractor in San Leandro was large enough to become borderline in this regard. Not all policy seemed clearly devised, firmly set forth and held to. At times, some saw policy as defined by supervisors “on the fly” without full deliberation. In result, many things haggled through grievance procedures and grew tedious or heated, resulting in considerable grumble and wonder through the plant.
Too many folks of comfortable wealth and lifelong ownership lack the experienced insights of having worked “on the shop floor,” shoulder to shoulder with others over long periods of time on various shifts, through changes of personnel, machinery, techniques, managers, government regulations and company policy; through building renovations, revised production goals and manufacturing strategies. Working people become a kind of cattle to be ignored, led by the nose or kept in the dark. Not friends! Not needed allies. Not family. People to be shuffled around or cast off, not asked for deep cooperation and helpful ideas. Sadly, too many in the ownership class are remote from the sources of their income, mediated by trustees, managers and portfolios. What do they know or care about the ‘horses’ they ride or how they’re saddled or stabled? It is equally sad that such remoteness and alienation makes unions necessary. People need to understand the joy of productive work under good management relations: the bliss of dreamily performing “in the groove,” feeling, yes, the Tao of articulate movement.
Unions that serve large industries may after long periods of time not function as well as they were set out to do. Agreements need sensible adjustments in response to changing conditions. This need should never serve as excuse for Big Business to wreck unions and run rampant over the little folks. Those at the top of the “food chain” should examine themselves thoughtfully and be willing to revise assumptions and goals. Values remain basic in human affairs. To sacrifice them for money alone or power over others is destructive to the web of human community on which ultimately all depend. There is that subtly defined union of all humanity and nature which we disregard or defy only at risk to more than we likely know. The world is not “God’s footstool” nor “man’s playpen.” It is nobody’s “cash cow” to be milked unkindly or in blithe disregard for multitudes of people, plants and animals large and minuscule that together form the web of life.