A tale of two mid-20th century titans may be apocryphal, but it offers insights into U.S. history. Henry Ford II and Walter Reuther are touring a modern auto plant. Ford jokingly jabs at Reuther: "Walter, how are you going to get these robots to pay UAW dues?" Not missing a beat, Reuther responds: "Henry, how are you going to get them to buy Ford cars?"
It is easy to romanticize the '50s, but the era did have some positive features. Unions along with minimum-wage and unemployment insurance contributed both to the emergence of a strong middle class and to rapid economic growth. Americans may have paid more for cars than if the "Big Three" had not been unionized, but unions had a protective effect that went well beyond their immediate membership. Many bosses -from construction to the emerging giants in retailing and services -hated unions and were willing to pay higher wages to forestall union organization.
Though many workers benefited, some were left out. Despite Reuther's support for civil rights legislation, African Americans were relegated to the worst auto jobs. Just as importantly, American labor leadership of the fifties and sixties was myopic not merely on the Vietnam War but over U.S. government repression of foreign labor unions. An anti-union climate abroad and marginalized women and minority workers at home benefited white working-class males - but only in the short term. These gaps provided fertile territory to divide labor at home and eventually to export jobs to cheap labor havens abroad.
Global trade agreements often are blamed - correctly - for labor's decline, but they are only part of the story. Consumers make choices that also add to workers' woes. When General Motors outsources production to Mexico, it puts downward pressure on autoworker wages, but the initial impact for many other workers will be a moderation in auto prices, for which many are grateful.
Gains for many middle- and working-class citizens are, however, temporary. As union clout and resources decline in such industries as auto and steel, other major industries worry less about union organizing. Then when large retail giants like Wal-Mart use their economic and legal muscle to pursue cheap wages and low-cost suppliers, the pressure to expel unions from firms that supply electronics, textile, clothing and other merchandise only intensifies. With unions ever less of a threat, call centers move abroad, and even many engineering jobs are following.
In the last quarter century, American working-class families have made only tiny economic gains despite considerable increases in their economic productivity. Though they may have slightly more consumer goods, these achievements have been more than offset by the longer hours of work and the economic costs associated with having both parents in the workplace.
More American workers are becoming aware that they are both workers and consumers and that injustice within any workplace has a way of spreading. Many American consumers are also increasingly bothered by the inhumanity of sweatshop conditions. Studies by the National Bureau of Economic Research have indicated that on average consumers would be willing to pay as much as 15 percent more on a $100 apparel item if they could be sure it was not made under sweatshop conditions. Other studies have indicated that increases in the retail price as low as 2 percent would finance a doubling of the producer's wage.
It is hard, however, for consumers to act on these concerns. Individual purchases are the proverbial drop in the bucket. How does one know that one's dollars are really going to honest companies? Maine has been a leader in addressing these concerns. In 2001 the state passed legislation requiring companies with which it does business not to buy from subcontractors that rely on sweatshop labor. More recently, this legislation has been updated. Gov. John Baldacci has reached out to other governors to establish a coalition of states acting on these principles. Since state governments as a whole purchase more than $400 billion a year in goods and services -more than twice Wal-Mart's expenditures - the potential to leverage more humane working environments is immense.
These initiatives could replace the economic race to the bottom with worker collaboration across ethnic and national lines. When more tax dollars go to firms that recognize worker rights, these unions can in turn engage in broader national organizing efforts. And producers and retailers have a market incentive to move toward better employment practices. As wage standards and organizing rights are implemented in developing countries, faster rates of growth, reductions in inequality and decreasing pressures to emigrate follow. This is a win-win scenario for workers in both the so-called developed and developing nations.
Help is needed in many forms, including letter writing, modest donations, research assistance and even calls to friends. Interested readers should contact SweatFree Communities (firstname.lastname@example.org or 207-262-7277).
With our national political leadership deeply committed to the status quo, there has never been a more apt time for state and local action.