Skip to main content

Wonks of the World, Unite!

For your Labor Day weekend reading pleasure, we have crafted summaries of recent research papers focusing on unions, strikes and the attitudes of workers. Collectively a bargain, they come to you fresh off the Miller-McCune factory floor.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Racism on the Picket Line
In October 2003, soon after the United Food and Commercial Workers went on strike against the Vons/Safeway supermarket chain in Southern California, a union organizer gave a radio interview in which he casually mentioned the picketers were having “problems with Asians.” Startled by what appeared to be an openly racist comment, sociologist Jake Wilson of the University of California, Riverside, decided to do some field research. A white male himself, he approached 25 white strikers outside stores in eastern Los Angeles County and conducted lengthy, one-on-one interviews.

Wilson did not initiate the subject of race, but he didn’t have to; “often very quickly,” the workers introduced the topic into the conversation. Again and again, African-American and Latino replacement workers were described with racially tinged derogatory terms — not slurs, per se, but rather assertions that they were gang members, criminals or junkies. One striking checker told him, “I tell (people crossing the picket line) they better use caution before eating the deli food, because crack-heads are cutting their meat.” When the talk shifted to customers, the strikers proved equally antagonistic toward Asian Americans, describing them as conservative, unfriendly and all too willing to cross the picket line.

Describing his findings in the May issue of Critical Sociology, Wilson argues labor organizations should “actively integrate an anti-racist/sexist agenda” into their ongoing educational campaign. Assertions of blue-collar solidarity ring hollow, he notes, when workers casually use ethnic stereotypes to deride anyone they consider the enemy.

Tread Men Walking
It stands to reason that an acrimonious work environment could lower the quality of products being produced, but a report by Princeton economists Alan Krueger and Alexandre Mas in the April 2004 Journal of Political Economy makes that point with the jolt of a blown tire. They examined the back story of the 2000 Bridgestone/Firestone tire recall and traced the problem to a lengthy, bitter labor dispute that began in July 1994. The conflict erupted when the company proposed drastic changes in working conditions, including moving production schedules from eight- to 12-hour shifts. Union members went on strike; replacement workers were hired. The contract, which included the recall of all strikers, was not settled until December 1996.

Three and a half years later, the tire company and Ford jointly recalled 14.4 million Wilderness AT tires after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted a pattern of accidents caused by sudden tread separation. The federal agency linked a specific make of tire to 271 fatalities and more than 800 injuries. Various theories were offered as to the cause, including a dispute between Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone over the proper air pressure. But the researchers concluded that labor strife, particularly at the Decatur, Ill., plant, was a “major contributing factor” to the problem.

Scouring data that linked faulty tires to the month in which they were produced, Krueger and Mas found “an excess number of claims for tires produced in Decatur in the few months before the contract expired — when Bridgestone/Firestone demanded concessions — and in the period in which many replacement workers and recalled union workers worked side by side.” They concede their evidence is circumstantial, but it is consistent with psychological studies suggesting errors are more likely to occur in high-stress conditions. And some of those flaws resulted in tragedy: Krueger estimates the problem tires produced by the Decatur plant were responsible for at least 40 deaths.

Paid Leave, Yes; Flex Time, No
In recent decades, progressive employers have adopted a range of family-friendly policies, from allowing extended leaves to flexible working hours. But is this shift occurring because of, or in spite of, pressure from unions? To examine that issue, John Budd of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management and University of York economist Karen Mumford turned to the 1988 British Workplace Employment Relations Survey, which includes data on 20,000 individuals and 1,500 workplaces throughout the British Isles. Previous studies, they noted, found no relationship between unionization and an array of family-oriented benefits in the U.S. or Australia. Was the situation different in the U.K., with its long tradition of unionism?

Their answer, published in the January 2004 issue of Industrial & Labor Relations Review, is yes and no. Union-organized workplaces are “more likely to have parental leave, paid family leave, child care and job-sharing policies” than their non-unionized counterparts. On the other hand, union workers are “less likely to report the availability of flexible working hours and work-at-home options.”

The researchers conclude that, on balance, union representation contributes to a more family-friendly workplace; generous leave policies, for instance, can be negotiated and written into contracts. But the negative association between unions and nontraditional arrangements, such as working from home, indicates reluctance to implementing these innovations may not be limited to management. The authors conclude by suggesting further research to determine whether the absence of these options “reflects the preferences of union members, or union leaders.”

Save the Planet, Save Your Job
Countless disputes about regulating polluting industries have been framed in the media as “jobs vs. the environment.” But in fact, the welfare of workers and the planet are intertwined, according to a paper published in the June 2006 issue of Organization & Environment. In “Green Unions in a Grey World,” historian Victor Silverman of Pomona College writes that “labor environmentalism” holds the promise of a new progressive political synthesis.

Silverman concedes that labor unions have traditionally believed “more jobs, more goods and more wealth, whatever the environmental cost, are the solutions to workers’ needs.” But he notes occupational health and safety is another important issue in labor negotiations and argues that support for a sustainable environment is a logical extension of that concern. Similarly, he asserts that “worker empowerment and community protection” are long-standing goals of the labor movement, and taking them into account in a meaningful way requires facing the reality of environmental degradation.

In a sense, workers and the environment have a common enemy in the profit-at-any-price mind-set that focuses exclusively on the bottom line. Could they also find a common purpose? Silverman expresses guarded optimism, noting that at least one organization, a European alliance called Sustainlabour, has dedicated itself to integrating labor issues and the environmental agenda. That’s a promising but problematic process, perhaps best served by taking incremental steps. At the very least, those picket signs could be made out of recycled material.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.