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But Can You Control Other Entrants?

The United Autoworkers (UAW) is on a new campaign. The union plans to organize workers in hither-to non-union foreign-owned automobile plants in the United States. This campaign may or may not work, but in the long run it will prove futile unless the union can compete in the international market, against all international auto workers.

There are 575,000 autoworkers in the U.S. Nearly 20% work for foreign-owned plants. All of these plants are non-union. The foreign-owned plants were intentionally placed in right-to-work areas, many in the South.

The UAW is likely to have some difficulty succeeding with this campaign. The non-union workers already earn highly competitive wages and benefits. To date, these U.S. workers in plants owned by Toyota, Volkswagen, Hyundai and Honda have shown little interest in unionization.

Why would the union be so interested in this initiative? To preserve its membership. The traditional problem with unions is less the rate of wages they demand and more about the work rules they impose. These work rules reduce the productivity of the unionized plants. That has certainly been the case in the U.S. auto industry. As a result, the UAW is losing membership as UAW auto plants in the U.S. close under the onerous costs the UAW plants carry. If the union can succeed in unionizing the domestic foreign-owned auto plants to the same extent they have unionized the domestic manufacturers’ plants, they will be able to impose the same work rules and produce roughly the same productivity. The result should, in the union’s eyes, be a reduction in the rate of jobs lost in the union.

But there is a problem here. The UAW has already seen that it was unable to stop new non-union plants in the U.S. How will it stop future non-union domestic plants? O.K., let’s say they can do that. Will they also be able to stop all foreign non-union plants from becoming established and growing? Certainly not. Unless the union membership can compete on an international basis with competitive costs and productivity, this unionization effort is wasted money. If it succeeds, the U.S. loses more plants to plants located offshore. Union membership still falls.

It seems that one of the problems for unionized employees is one of definition. Union members often call their compatriots in competing companies “brothers and sisters.” These are certainly not brothers and sisters. In a marketplace they are competitors. Union employees have to be able to beat, or at least stalemate, these competitors or lose their jobs. This is true as long as the UAW can not control the entrance of other less expensive competitors, either in the U.S. or elsewhere.

The long history of the DRAM semiconductor market illustrates this. The U.S. manufacturers of DRAM semiconductors faced intense competition from the Japanese in the 1980s. The domestic industry succeeded in slowing the Japanese by using the International Trade Commission. Then arose new and equally troublesome problems. These problems were DRAM semiconductor facilities in Taiwan and Korea. Eventually, the U.S. industry evolved to the point where it had only one domestic producer of DRAM chips. Intel was one of the early competitors to get out of that market to focus its resources in the more complex, and much more profitable, domestic micro-processor business.

Posted 2/23/11

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