Reasons for and against unionization abound here

Friday, June 5, 2009

You don't have to look much further than a couple of our recent front-page stories to pollinate a conversation about union representation for workers.

It's probably obvious that one example is the General Motors plant in Spring Hill, if not GM and the United Auto Workers union in general. The other example is the Marshall County Schools System.

The former, according to a chaplain in town who takes a larger view of things, is an example of the system run amok. The later, according to a local educator's view, might be likened to how some businesses have used temp service workers.

The educator admits up front to not knowing everything. Yet the gist of the story is this: A teacher could work for nine years in a system and still not be tenured if they receive a couple of those end-of-year letters saying something like "You're not rehired for the next year, but hang around and maybe something will open up."

To be tenured, a teacher must be rehired by the system well-before fall in four consecutive years, complete with a letter advising them that they're wanted back.

Given the history of conflict between school system leaders here and the Marshall County Education Association, it is at the very least, remarkable that the school board is looking at reopening a section of the first work contract ever signed between the two institutions. It came about after the MCEA took the Board and schools director to court.

Circumstances that led to the Chancery Court case won by the MCEA - complete with a guest appearance of the chief executive officer of the Tennessee Education Association - would tend to support reasons for state and federal labor laws that protect workers. Indeed: Circumstances were said to be the reason for the organization of the MCEA into a bargaining agent.

It's far more complicated at GM with the UAW and, like the local educator, no claim is made here to any expertise in the area of labor law, history or the dynamics of bargaining, but plenty of Americans in all walks of life feel free to speak up. Meanwhile, there's a colleague here who wants to know when he gets his GM stock certificates since we the people of the United States now own a majority of GM.

"GM had problems 30 years ago that they failed to address," our preacher friend said. "They failed to respond to what the consumer wanted.

"Henry Ford created a middle class..." the minister said in a remark more interesting when you consider Ford paid pretty good wages back then, and now Ford is the one of Detroit's Big Three that's above being bailed out - and might suffer some because the others are getting government help.

"The unions and GM management stood at loggerheads without real change," he said.

During those times of threatened strikes and when negotiators walked out with great fanfare as a bargaining tool, there were strike funds to help picketers. The money wasn't much, but the unions focused on contract negotiations and auto manufacturers didn't fair as well, or so it seems now. After all, car plant management also had to run the business, too.

I remember a suggestion decades ago that maybe what ought to be done is just turn the companies over to the unions. Ironically, one of the objections was that it would be socialism. Another was what about the stockholders?

Unions are necessary when management misbehaves.

Auto manufacturers have been claiming they've been building the vehicles Americans want, but maybe Americans have been buying into that American dream of mobility and freedom in style as advertised.

Why can't the Big Three produce that vehicle and make it as energy efficient as a diesel locomotive, one of the biggest hybrids around? Maybe a lot of the oil companies' stock and directors are intermingled with car companies.

Go figure on it and watch to see if unions can run a car plant better than the system in place now.

It'll also be interesting to see what happens to the teachers' contract here.