PG talks a bit at De Novo about the push for card-check union elections. The unions argue that they need card-check elections because employers engage in anti-union harassment, legal and otherwise. Employers, they say, can hold mandatory anti-union meetings, fire organizers, and scare employees with threats to close up shop in the event of a union election. Whenever these tactics cross the line into unfair labor practices, the resulting fines are often worth keeping the union out. I won’t state a preference for the outcome of this bill (a certain dead letter either in the Senate or by veto), but I will share a story.
Back in college, I took a labor history class. I enjoyed it a lot. I wrote my final paper on the theme of labor in country music. The highlight was a field trip we took to a textile plant. The professor called around, and only one would let us come. I guess the others were afraid of another Greensboro Massacre or something. So we carpooled over the to the plant. (Here’s a David Lat-style piece of trivia: a future Supreme Court clerk was on this trip!) I’m not keeping the company anonymous out of ethics; I honestly can’t remember its name.
The original plant had been built before the turn of the 20th Century. They had pictures of horse-drawn wagons hauling bricks to the site. It was a loud, hot facility, and you could almost feel yourself getting the brown lung disease. The machines had dangerous-looking moving parts that looked quite capable of taking a finger off. There were foul-smelling dyes in barrels. A lot of the employees weren’t wearing masks, and although I’m sure that was their choice, they were working in an environment where a mask probably would have been a good idea.
After touring the original plant, we went to a brand-new facility, and we could immediately see what difference a hundred years makes. The new plant was clean and (relatively) quiet, with gleaming new equipment. They were large, enclosed machines with the moving parts well-guarded. The old plant required the textiles to take a circuitous path upstairs and downstairs and even outside and around the back before they could be finished. The new one, in contrast, was built to allow the process to work in a smooth straight line. You could watch the raw materials be turned into finished products in one room. It must have been a thousand times more efficient.
And I might mean that literally. The old plant required many more workers to operate its old-fashioned machines and move the textiles along the line. The new one, as I recall, could be operated by as few as eight workers, and run around the clock. So upgrading the facilities allowed the plant to downgrade the workforce. And hey, that happens — I’m not advocating keeping workers cooped up in unsafe, unclean, inefficient facilities just for the sake of saving jobs. But what was unsettling was the glee the mill owners took in all this.
It started when we showed up and saw those old pictures. The mill’s p.r. person was telling us the company’s history, and made sure to mention how fiercely anti-union the mill was. He credited the company’s success to its non-union status. He proudly told us a story about union organizers trying to visit the workers during the Depression, and how the mill’s owners (probably the parents or grandparents of the current owners) had stood on top of the plant with shotguns, firing at the union men if they got too close. This tale was recounted as if it was the favorite family knee-slapper. I believe the punch line was something like, “And a few of those union boys were limping on their way out of here!”
That event was probably before the passage of the NLRA, but the company’s opinion of unions didn’t change. The new facility was smoke-free, which seemed pretty sensible, given that you probably wouldn’t want cigarette smoke to contaminate the product. (The whole area was smoke-free, so they couldn’t even go outside for a smoke break, as I remember.) But the spokesman grew somber when telling us how controversial that move was, noting that “We almost got a union over that decision.” He had no doubt that was an existential threat. It’s almost funny to think about how the workers were almost willing to unionize in order to be able to smoke, but not to save all the jobs that were going to be lost. But the mill owners assured the employees that if they organized, the mill would have to close up shop. And, of course, there’s no union.
I guess, in the bigger picture, it’s kind of amazing there were any jobs left, given how many textile mills have closed and moved overseas. And it wouldn’t surprise me if much of the labor force was now immigrants. And, like I said, I don’t believe in unions for the sake of unions. But I’m no so quick to dismiss the need for labor-friendly legislation, because shady practices by employers aren’t vestiges of movies like Norma Rae (the source for the picture). Given how eager the company was to tell us what it did about its history, it makes me wonder a little about what we didn’t hear. Naturally, we weren’t allowed to talk to any employees.
(This post’s title from the Woody Guthrie tune “Union Maid,” recently covered very nicely by Old Crow Medicine Show.)