The union now makes its bargaining points to union leaders who will hold their annual meeting in a couple of weeks before a contract is ratified or rejected. We’ll see. The deal will not be binding; it is merely “voluntary” in the sense that the companies may ask to opt out at any time. Even so, the outcome is of huge importance. Without a contract, all sorts of incentives are lost and some elements of the industrial age in the US are being disrupted. Automation, the use of robots and other technologies, and the loss of manufacturing jobs are likely to be devastating. And if a contract is ratified (which many would suspect is extremely unlikely) Chrysler will now need to reduce wages even further (with the aid of corporate tax cuts of $500 billion by 2019), so it has no real incentive to hire unionized US workers. In short, this just may be the end of the road for a major US industry that has been one of the few bright spots in the US economy for a decade. As Ford’s COO says in an interview: “We’re not the only ones that have these challenges.”
My experience since the start of the Great Recession - what hasn’t changed and what certainly hasn’t - was that unions would usually get a contract from their workers and then get on with doing their jobs. It was simply too painful at times to even contemplate strike action - which some did when the conditions became really dire and the US economy really soured.
As I described recently in a column ( Link ). Now, the reality is that the cost of doing a union strike is only going up as part of the overall cost of doing business, and if a fight breaks out some of the big unions don’t have the revenue (either from dues-paying members or from corporate-financed union “contracts”) to handle it. That means they need to have some other means of raising a significant amount of public pressure and pressure which they still can’t do and no amount of union leadership will have the capacity to provide.
I’m sure most people reading this will think of the “strike or fight” question as a red herring because those terms represent so little. The trouble is that it is quite literally the only thing that matters to a company on the other side of the bargaining table. A fight doesn’t matter if it isn’t a war.
The other thing that the “fight or strike” question misses is that there are a lot of other reasons that a unionization vote is necessary that are not specifically tied to a strike, but still affect the end of an agreement. The key question for most workers is not whether they’ll be employed by a union, but how they’ll be represented and compensated. There are issues of equity: at this moment, both unions and non-unionized workers share roughly the same number of workers with those employers and those employees are covered by the same laws. So, that’s a bigger win on the equity side than you might imagine.
(For instance, the US public system is also one of the smallest in the world among developed countries; we don’t want all of us to suddenly be at the bargaining table for the better of all workers or to face a loss of benefits because our pay is lower. There’s a lot of bargaining at this stage.)
There are things that unions can contribute to that will make the overall bargaining process easier for workers and their unions, too. We’ve gotten used to a kind of “right to work” form of deal in Canada, where every union must bargain to the same standards but the government and companies will both get some sort of back-of-money kickback. That back-of-money is generally called a “fair return”, and if the deal is good for workers, it’ll be good for both unions and employers. While there will be some bargaining at this stage that may seem like a job for strike action, it has the benefit of being a simple win for workers: they’d become better off both personally and collectively by getting more money for their collective labor. Some of the big American unions (especially the ones with large US political power) have tried this to the point of trying to pass the “right to work” legislation as a whole, but it’s clearly a win less in terms of what it does for workers and more in terms of what it accomplishes. But that’s not the point. The point is to increase the bargaining power of the “bad guys”, so that they feel a little less threatened by union campaigns.
All the various issues mentioned at the start of this post aside, the key issue that will, in a real strike scenario, make it a win for unions and workers is the amount of public pressure. The “fight to the death” point is largely an illusion, even for unions which already work