Mickey Kaus, writing on the intransigence of UAW president Ron Gettlefinger [h/t Instapundit], observes:
It doesn’t mean Gettlefinger’s workers have a right to $28/hour if at that wage their employers can’t stay in business without an ongoing multi-billion dollar subsidy. I’m sorry if this seems obvious. It’s apparently not obvious enough.
It’s not obvious to most on the Left. One of the basic tenets of Marxism is that labor has intrinsic value that precedes and is separate from the value of management and investing. Most leftists, even those who are not Marxist, have absorbed this concept of the value of labor.
In reality, the circumstances are the exact opposite. It is the skill and judgment of managers and investors that creates the value of labor. If you don’t own your own company or freelance, you rely on someone else to choose what work you do and how you do it. Their decisions create the value of the products and services you make. When they make mistakes, the value of your labor decreases and you should charge less for it.
People who worked for Ford created valuable products that people would pay for because Henry Ford and his successors engineered cars and organized their production and distribution. Without that brainwork the labor of those on the factory floor has little value. They might as well be subsistence farmers.
This ugly reality means that if managers and investors make a mistake, which happens, a lot, the unit value of workers’ labor to their customers decreases. Since their labor has less value they need to charge less for it. Unfortunately, unions are based on the premise that labor has some kind of intrinsic value independent of whether anyone wishes to trade for the results of that labor.
I worked for Apple during the 1990s. During the mid-’90s management decided to get rid of Quality Assurance teams and instead just rely on each department to ensure its own quality. The results were disastrous. Every product shipped in an 18-month period in 1996-97 suffered from massive flaws. Suddenly, a company known for its high, even excessive, quality had created self-destructing garbage. This was purely a result of poor decisions at the upper levels yet these mistakes made the work of lower-level employees less valuable. Low-level employees did not have the right to demand that Apple’s customers keep buying inferior products.
Auto unions’ strike-enforced work rules and anti-productivity “job security” demands have seriously interfered with the decisions that the management and investors of the auto companies made. By overruling the decisions of management, unions have acquired the responsibilities of management. But even if they had not done so, and all the problems of the auto industry rested solely on the shoulders of management, they would still have to charge less for their now-less-valuable labor.
I know from personal experience that it sucks to work under incompetent management, but that doesn’t change the reality that bad management reduces the value of the labor of workers. Unions need to accept that reality.
If they don’t, I don’t want my tax dollars paying for their foolishness.
[update (2009-2-27 12:42pm): After reading some of the comments, I realize that I did not make myself clear. I did not intend to imply that I thought that workers contribute nothing. Instead, I wanted to drive home the idea that workers are utterly dependent on management to make companies successful. That success in turn determines the value of the worker’s work to the consumer and thus ultimately how much the worker can charge for his labor. The only way a worker can hope to remain competitive is to reduce his prices. Unions don’t get this. They have never gotten this. They will try to get the same wages for work of different value. In doing so, they will kill the goose that lays their golden eggs.]