Rethinking Work – Virginia Business


January 30, 2022


Bernie Niemeier

When I was at a big company, the big newspapers were heavily unionized. After the railroads and before high technology, newspaper publishers were the media barons of the day. The business was capital-intensive, requiring once-in-a-generation investments for large presses and printing facilities. It was also high for fixed costs, with payroll being the largest expense ahead of newsprint and other departmental expenses. Still, profit margins were high. Newspapers were great business for their owners.

Considered a manufacturing process, it’s no surprise that the work has been syndicated in the pressrooms. Additionally, many newsrooms were organized by the Newspaper Guild. The truckers belonged to the Teamsters. In the pre-internet days, customers called by phone and spoke to a person. Subscription services and classified ads were provided by large telephone carrier banks, some organized by the Communications Workers of America. Not all newspapers had these unions, but they were a constant threat to the profits of the entire industry.

Unions were expensive, with membership dues, and they stood between management and workers in workplace communications. They were protected by the National Labor Relations Board, which drove up legal costs. The union negotiators weren’t exactly what you would call friendly guys.

For a decade or more in the early 1990s, the company I worked for managed to decertify something like 12 out of 16 organized work units in various Southeast markets.

Uncertifying a union was hard work, requiring years of difficult negotiations. Fair, reasonable and sensible raises and benefits given to non-unionized employees have been denied to union members. Reaching a stalemate was considered a victory as it enforced the final set of conditions offered. By NLRB standards, simply getting employee signature cards to call for a vote on decertification was very difficult. Other corporate tactics included outsourcing and job cuts.

During the time all of this was happening, the US economy was undergoing a massive transformation from an industrial economy to a service economy. Unions had their heyday in many sectors, but were losing their influence. Instead of employees, it has become common for companies to call workers “associates”. The value of human capital has begun to be recognized as a real asset, equal or even superior to financial capital.

For as long as I can remember, the business community’s legislative lobbying mantra has included three priorities: low taxes, less regulation, and a low minimum wage. It is perhaps time to rethink the value of these propositions in a more contemporary context.

Although touted as an engine of job growth, low tax rates have contributed much more to income disparity than to job creation. Inadequate regulation has accelerated climate change to the point of causing a global crisis. Low wages drive people out of the labor market and stifle consumer spending in large segments of our economy.

After the long decline and fall of union influence, it is amazing to see wealthy companies like Amazon facing organizing efforts. Even Starbucks, which promotes a progressive image, has seen two stores unionize and other locations attempt to unionize in recent months. Perhaps the ultra-rich owners of these companies should think less about issues like outer space and transcendental meditation and more about their employees here on Earth.

Closer to home, it amazes me to see small newspaper newsrooms here in Virginia beginning to reform unions. I understand their pain, but it’s a futile and uphill battle against the greatest odds in what has become a very beleaguered industry.

When you talk to smart business leaders and ask them what makes them so successful, they’ll often say, “We have great people.” It has certainly been my own experience. People are the most important competitive asset. Yes, the government has to do its job, but so do businesses.

Let’s think about work differently. A rising tide should indeed lift all boats.

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