Our Paranoiac Relationship with Organized Labor

In December 1944, at the height of World War II, Sewell Avery, Chairman of Montgomery Ward —at that time the world’s largest clothing company — refused to comply with previously negotiated labor agreements. Consequently, the President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt ordered the U.S. military to evict Avery from the Montgomery Ward premises. There is a famous photograph of the event showing elements of the U.S. National Guard forcibly removing Mr. Avery from the building while still sitting in his office chair.

I point this out, to show that the visceral hatred of labor unions in not restricted to companies and governments in garment exporting countries.

The conflict between management and organized labor first appeared some time ago, when Pharaoh blamed the ten plagues on of the Brotherhood of Israelite Stone Cutters and Tomb Builders (Local XIV). From that time to the present, we have been blaming the unions for just about everything.

Even now, reasonable, educated and otherwise sane garment professionals will tell you that the unions were responsible for the demise of the U.S. (or UK, or Europe, depending where you live) domestic garment industry.

I am not saying that the unions did not play at least a supporting role in the real-life version of “Death of a Salesman”; but the truth is the domestic garment industry was destroyed the same reason why any industry dies — poor management making bad decisions.

The truth notwithstanding, the internecine war between garment factory owners and their workers seems to be universal. Many of the same events now being played out in China, Bangladesh, Cambodia and India are close copies of events that occurred many years ago in the U.K., the U.S. and most countries in Europe.

In the opening stages, industry manages to avoid the need for formal labor relations altogether, with the assistance of business-friendly governments independent unions are kept out of the system — often using tactics better suited to a battlefield than a factory. The list of past leaders in the fight against organized labor includes such illustrious names as Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, Winston Churchill, President Calvin Coolidge — the places are different; the names are different; but the events are very much the same.

Later some governments — particularly in Asia and Latin America ­— create national unions which exist solely to keep workers demands to a minimum.

When that fails company management makes financial arrangements with union leaders to maintain the status quo while avoiding industrial action.

Eventually the situation does change.

Just as U.S. and European attitudes changed in the 1930s so too are attitudes in the garment exporting countries changing, albeit 80 years later. The large transnational garment factory groups are finally about to come to terms with the reality of the 21st century. As we have seen from the recent strikes in China, Cambodia and Bangladesh, the era of independent industrial unions has arrived. The business-friendly governments, do-nothing national unions, and union-leader bribes of the past have simply forced the workers to organize independently and it would appear, most effectively.

The problem is that existing factory management cannot move forward. They lack the skills, the experience, and most importantly the vision to negotiate with the unions as equals. The fundamental difficulty is that senior factory management invariably perceives organized labor with the same visceral animosity as did their fathers and grandfathers.

This problem will not go away by resorting to the time-honored tactics of previous generations. Management can no longer force a resolution by yelling and screaming, nor can they rely on a supine local police force to bring on the riot-gas and guns.

On the other hand, the problem cannot be solved simply by giving-in to unreasonable worker demands, just to get the goods out.

It grieves me to say this, but the responsibility lies more with management than with the unions. All too often senior management has failed to understand there is a difference between sound management and ego. As with the late unlamented Sewell Avery, our factory management fails to recognize they are in business to make money, which can be accomplished only by meeting the needs of their customers. And right now, their customers need factories with a highly trained, well motivated and stable workforce.

I must also say that neither the NGOs nor the ILO have served the industry or its workers. Too often, rather setting up a structure where management and labor can resolve issues effectively, they have worked only to perpetuate and exacerbate the animosities of the dead past. They must learn that the era of class conflict is over. Winning the war will simply result in driving the industry to move elsewhere, leaving the workers with nothing.

The immediate and most important step is for our industry to build a rational relationship between organized labor and management. This will not be an easy task. Both sides will have to overcome years of animosity. In this regard, both sides must develop professionals educated to deal with one another on an equal footing without rancor.

Industry and unions leaders must work out a modus vivendi which will allow for future negotiations. First and foremost, this must include two principles

Collective Bargaining: Where workers in each factory empower a single union to negotiate on their behalf

Compulsory Arbitration: Where disputes which cannot be settled amicably, be brought before an independent body for settlement and both workers and management agree in advance to accept the decision as binding.

There is much that the developing world can learn from the experiences of the countries of the industrialized west. This is one instance where by learning they can avoid the mistakes made by the U.S. and Europe.

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