Instapundit observes that the LAT‘s Michael Hiltzik is “really upset” that BMW is laying off the unionized teamsters it employs directly at one of its California warehouses and going to let a contracting company handle staffing from here one. Michael Hiltzik grew up here in New York and went to Colgate, but it’s possible that he’s from a working-class rather than comfy-bourgeois family background. He sure as hell doesn’t sound like it, though. His column displays the ignorance of someone who never spends time with people who work with their hands except cabbies, waitresses, and interview subjects:
As of Aug. 31, the plant [will] be outsourced to an unidentified third-party logistics company and all but three of its 71 employees laid off.
The union contract will be terminated. Some of the employees might be offered jobs with the new operator, but there are no guarantees. And no one expects the new bosses will match the existing $25 hourly scale or the health benefits provided now.
Every working American should be dismayed by — and afraid of — what BMW is doing.
These employees exemplified the best qualities of the American worker. They devoted their working lives to BMW, at a time when it was building and solidifying its U.S. beachhead. Their wages, with benefits, paid for a reasonable middle-class lifestyle if they managed it carefully. Throw in the job security they were encouraged to expect, and they had the confidence to make sacrifices and investments that contributed to the economy for the long term, like college education for the kids, an addition on the house, a new baby. Then one day they were handed a mass pink slip, effective in a matter of weeks.
My father worked for Bethlehem Steel when I was growing up, and he spent much time in my teenage years laid off. There are few more effective ways to get at me emotionally than to tell me about some laboring man who’s suddenly out of a job and feeling unwanted by the labor market. My father was called back to the Steel my senior year of high school and is still working for its most recent owner, so things worked out for my parents, but there were some real nail-biter years in there.
My parents would probably have loved to own a detached house, with the possibility of putting an addition on or a pool in. But my brother and I grew up in a tiny two-bedroom rowhouse that we rented. My father made a little extra money by being the landlady’s de facto super, doing odd jobs as needed. My mother worked part-time in the cafeterias in our school district once my brother started first grade. And while my financial aid package from Penn was generous enough to allow me to go, my parents sat down with me my senior year of high school and said, “Look, kid, you may be working your way through college depending on how things go.”
So I’m kind of lost when Hiltzik patronizingly bleats about the “reasonable middle-class lifestyle” (reasonable to whom, kemosabe?) that these people all assumed they could expect in perpetuity and have now lost. The economy has sucked for three years. Didn’t anyone stop to think about what might happen if BMW’s fortunes turned sour, or, as is happening, it decided to reorganize in order to stay financially healthy? Hiltzik talks in passive voice about “the job security they were encouraged to expect,” but you kind of have to wonder whether BMW was leading them on or the teamsters’ union just gave them to understand that it would always find a way to strong-arm the company into striking a deal to their advantage.
Kim du Toit wrote into Instapundit with some harsher words for Hiltzik’s profilees:
By Hiltzik’s own admission, the plain fact of the matter is that these BMW union workers were getting middle-class salaries for doing piecework. Amid all the “woe is us” stories, one attitude shines through: the unionized workforce expected a sinecure for their “loyalty” and are now devastated by finding out what we non-union workers have always known: employment is not guaranteed, and if you continue to ask for more money than the job is worth, you will eventually lose your job.
I don’t know that sinecure is the word I’d choose, but I wouldn’t say it’s not apposite. The people Hiltzik describes probably did work hard. But having grown up with a USW father, I heard plenty of stories of coworkers who wanted to punch in, do exactly what they were told, punch out and forget about work. (I also heard plenty of stories about coworkers who were just plain lazy but were protected by the union, but for now let’s just assume that Hiltzik’s fantasy obtains and everyone involved here pulls his or her weight.) There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it means that decisions about the future of the company will be made while you’re not paying attention by people who care.
And I can understand where Kim’s pissy tone comes from, given Hiltzik’s insufferable pious-lefty tone:
The Ontario union, Teamsters Local 495, got Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Reps. Joe Baca (D-Rialto) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) to write painfully polite letters to Jim O’Donnell, chairman of BMW North America, asking him to reconsider. When I say that’s the least they could do, I’m talking literally — it’s the very least. How about hauling him before a televised hearing and having him balance out a $3.6-billion taxpayer loan with the firing of 70 American workers? The company surely wouldn’t characterize its federal loan as charity, but neither is maintaining its parts distribution workers on a living wage.
It’s fashionable to observe today that the loyalty the BMW workers gave their employer was naive; complain to manufacturing CEOs about their remorseless hollowing out of middle-class livelihoods to maintain payouts to shareholders, and the answer you get is that this is merely the way of our hyper-competitive modern world. Nothing personal; it’s the tyranny of the marketplace.
Yeah, I have no doubt that top management at BMW would call it “the tyranny of the marketplace”—not to acknowledge reality, but to disguise it in order to avoid bad PR. As Hiltzik himself implicitly acknowledges in the previous paragraphs, BMW and the Fed are part of the same big-government/big-business club of glad-handing and special deals for insiders, which circumvents the market forces that would crush a company like BMW if it couldn’t solve its own financial problems without an infusion of DC cash.
And while we’re on the subject of diction: I’m not sure loyalty in this case means what Hiltzik wants it to mean. Some of the workers at the Ontario plant probably genuinely love what they do and love doing it for BMW. But dollars to doughnuts, others are just too complacent to think about changing jobs, especially if the employment market sucks and they know they’re being paid at the top end of the wage range for what they’re doing. That’s certainly rational on their part, but that doesn’t mean it’s rational not to plan for what might happen if the gravy train ever stops. When contracts expire, sometimes they’re not renewed. To paraphrase Kim, just because you’re good at what you do, that doesn’t mean the union isn’t getting you more money to do it than keeping you on is worth in the current economy. Note that I’m not just talking about what the workers themselves are paid. Hiltzik weirdly writes as if that were the only cost associated with them, but of course it’s not. Negotiations with the union and compliance with the vagaries of the NLRB (mentioned by Instapundit) and assorted regulations have to be factored in.
My point isn’t that Hiltzik has his angels and devils reversed. Maybe BMW really is being venal toward workers who poured themselves into building the company from their own small part of it. But you can’t simply start the narrative in the present and leave it to be assumed that keeping things as they used to be is a viable alternative. Someone with actual experience of working-class life, I can’t help thinking, would have asked a lot more about the past than comes out in Hiltzik’s soft-focus flashbacks.