Friday, April 22, 2011

Why Unions Are a Pain

Some days, it sucks to be a large, technologically advanced corporation building a highly anticipated product.

Some days, it sucks to be Boeing.

Boeing is trying hard in spite of assorted delays to get its latest jetliner, the 787, off the ground.  Doubtless you've heard of Boeing.  They're the ones who built the iconic 747 with its singular design element, the humped cockpit.  Airbus is building a plane with a similar feature; most people look at it and say, "747."  That's what you get for being late to the party.   It's like Band-Aids and Kleenex, when you're the icon, it doesn't matter if someone else is making a similar product.  You win the recognition race.

Boeing also builds the 777, the largest twin-engine passenger aircraft flying.  And it's a doozy: the engine nacelles are almost as big around as the entire fuselage of the old 707.  A 777 on a press flight stayed aloft over 22 hours - that's impressive by any yardstick.  No in-flight refueling on passenger planes, you know.  The fuel economy of Boeing's planes just gets better and better.

But the 787, AKA the Dreamliner, keeps getting stalled.  Weight issues, technical issues, order cancellations all pile up.  Boeing's headaches are pretty big ones.  At least the union hasn't kicked up a fuss lately...

Oops.  Boeing, in order to keep costs under control, to keep development and production moving forward, decided to build its second 787 production line not in Puget Sound but in South Carolina.

Labor unions aren't a big thing in South Carolina.  That's where the trouble starts.

The National Labor Relations Board said, "Not so fast.  You said back in '07 you would build in Washington State."

At this point Boeing should be completely within its rights to say, "We changed our mind," and that be the end of it.  The company owns the lines, the company builds the planes.  The company builds the lines for building the planes.  The company should get to say where that happens.

You can bet South Carolina, not widely known as a manufacturing hub of much of anything, would be tickled to get the work.  But the NLRB is sticking its nose in just the same.  The NLRB claims that Boeing decided to move the plant as a means to avoid potential labor disputes, that they can't afford a work stoppage every three years, just when they're building one of the most technically challenging aircraft ever made.

Here's where I put my liberal hat away.  Hello, conservative helmet.  Why shouldn't Boeing build where they want?  Even if the stated reason for choosing a different location for the plant is as boldly stated as "We don't want to have to deal with unions quite so much," is that illegal?  I think not.  I thought this was a free country.

The gall of the NLRB trying to force any company to build where it dictates smacks of the worst of socialism. "You'll build what we tell you to build, where we tell you to build it."  Click your heels when the commissar rides by in his staff car.  If you own the company, you get to call the shots.  If you are the worker, you get to decide whether to work.  If you are the union, you are...what, exactly?  Unions are supposed to represent the workers, to uphold their rights.  What I take away from that is protecting the privileges of lots of workers while holding a Damoclean sword over the companies.  Before labor laws were a big thing in this country, corporate abuse of labor was rampant, but those days are pretty much behind us.  The need for unions isn't what it used to be.  I believe - honestly - that at least part of the inflation problem in this country is to be blamed on unions and their incessant pressure for higher wages and greater privileges.

Is it any wonder all the technically advanced work goes to where the labor is cheapest?  Americans demand low prices but they also demand high wages.  Something's got to give, people.  If you want an American-made VCR, you're going to have to find a labor scheme different from the Detroit model.  You're going to have to be willing to work for less.

I almost took a production job.  I would've been building mobile homes.  Some of the work would have been a bit demanding, but it was pretty much just assembly line stuff.  Granted, the assembly line would've churned out houses, but you get the point.  And it would've started at $7.10 an hour, comfortably above minimum wage just seven short years ago.  Something better came available and I took that instead, but I almost signed.  $7.10 per hour pays the bills.  If it doesn't, what are you buying? 

So.  Boeing wants to build planes.  South Carolina wants jobs.  Washington State already has some jobs and Boeing asserts that no jobs already existing are being relocated by the decision to build the line in SC.  If Boeing were to completely shut down the factory, the offices, the research labs, everything, would that violate union rules?  I don't see how.  The company decides for itself whether it wants to stay in business.  If the company's principals turned around after a while and said, "you know, building planes was fun.  Let's do that again, but this time someplace warmer," would that violate union rules?  I don't see how. 

I don't see a problem here.  What hasn't been done, hasn't been done.  What might be done, might not be done.  And it might be done somewhere else.  Boeing wants to build planes.  The NLRB needs to step out of the way, or else admit that it really doesn't have an interest in American business.

Labor Relations means the workers talking to the companies.  If the NLRB succeeds in hogtying the companies in this fashion, count on the companies just going away.  Then there will be no need for relations, and no need for the NLRB.

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