Smyrna: The Crucible of American Labor

WHY is Nissan torpedoing unionization in its United States plants while, at the same time, encouraging unionism in Great Britain? It was shocking to see Americans, in Nissan T-shirts proclaiming ``Union Free and Proud of it,'' celebrating the union's defeat. One may talk of bug-free or virus-free environments, but not of union-free factories. Nissan has shown a remarkable lack of subtlety and savvy. One does not call a nearly sacrosanct piece of American life an infestation! Are these same workers going to sing the Nissan hymn in the future when speedups and reductions in benefits will be necessary to restore ``competitiveness''? Smyrna, Tenn. - the namesake of the city of myrrh and wisdom in Asia Minor - is now the place of a pitiful defeat for American workers.

As long as the Japanese pay UAW wages, they say, the union will not be able to organize the Japanese-owned plants in the US. Do the workers in Smyrna realize that they have UAW to thank for their livable wages? Why is Nissan paying them union wages, but only $3 a day to workers in the third world?

Anti-union interests have spread the myth that US competitiveness will not be restored until US wages come down to match wages in other countries. But the perceived lack of competitiveness of American workers is not caused by high US wages but by the shameless working conditions and wages in developing countries.

Free trade, they say, has made unions and work rules obsolete and counterproductive. Productivity is the determinant of wages, and American workers must wake up to this fact, they say. Rubbish. There are at least two reasons why productivity and free trade are irrelevant criteria in international wage comparisons: high-tech and political oppression.

High-tech equalizes productivity across countries. It reduces jobs to simple tasks and these tasks can be performed by unskilled labor. Peasants, who were plowing a rice field behind a water buffalo or collecting firewood a short time ago, are now running the assembly lines of factories in the third world. Industrial plants in Brazil, Mexico, Korea, Japan, the US, and the Philippines using the same digital and numerical control production methods churn out an unending stream of uniform-quality products.

As a result, since technical efficiency is the same worldwide, wage levels form the major difference between countries. Workers in developing areas may survive on $3 per day; but how is the US going to compete with them when the median price of a house is $100,000?

Imbalances between nations are caused by the elimination of the equalizing mechanism, the productivity-based wage differential. Wages are no longer determined by productivity but by non-economic factors - political oppression, policies toward unions, totalitarianism, subsidies, and the willingness of business firms to exploit native labor in developing countries.

Undermining unionism will not restore the competitiveness of American labor. On the contrary, the US can renew competitiveness by helping workers in developing areas improve their living conditions. Foreign workers are paid starvation-level wages because many of these countries prevent the emergence of democratic labor unions. To accomplish this goal, the US needs to stop worshipping at the altar of free trade, destroy the idol of productivity, and restore equity by enacting some bold policies. At the dawn of the 21st century, the US cannot afford to perpetuate calcified policies because they satisfy 19th-century free trade economics.

First, the US should encourage American unions to organize workers in underdeveloped countries. Second, the US should pressure the authoritarian governments of many of these countries to stop hampering unionism and allow their workers to organize. Finally, the US should impose trade sanctions against countries hostile to unionism. Proper tariffs based on wage differentials caused by government policies toward unions will remove the artificial lack of competitiveness of US labor. Reciprocal trade agreements and other ``protectionist'' tools will be the means of achieving ``balance'' and the best hope of operating on sound economic grounds.

When unions accomplish the task of increasing wages and benefits in developing countries, they will equalize the costs of production among trading partners. They will improve the standard of living of countless millions of working people throughout the world, restore international competitiveness, and take the wind out of the sails of radical movements and revolutionaries.

Smyrna will be the crucible that tempers the US to withstand and defeat the vaunted Japanese management techniques. With sound adaptation and reform, American unionism will emerge stronger than ever. Smyrna is going to be the Pearl Harbor, not the Waterloo, of American unionism.

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