Er, "Go Writers!": The Role of Unions in a Competitive World

Well, that was unpleasant. My post yesterday explaining why few people felt sorry for the striking Hollywood TV writers and the soon-to-possibly-be-striking CBS news writers raised few eyebrows here, on this tech- and start-up-centric site, but over on Huffington Post, a similar argument got me run through the meat grinder.

(And it wasn’t just thousands of HuffPo readers who wanted my head: Even my wife took me to the woodshed for what she saw as a knee-jerk anti-union screed.)

So, bruised and battered, I’ll attempt to provide some context and advance the discussion:

I don’t hate the writers for striking.  As I said, given the existing “residuals” system, I think the TV folks deserve a slice of digital revenue.  I don’t think it’s reasonable for the CBS folks to demand that radio people be paid the same as TV people or that CBS not eliminate jobs by combining newsrooms (the world is changing, and companies have to be able to change with it).  This said, like any employees, the writers are entitled to ask for–and get–as much as the market will bear.  My point was only to explain why the writers’ impassioned “greedy execs” stance wasn’t engendering much public sympathy: Because they already have excellent, highly coveted, and well-paid jobs, because they’re smart, well-educated folks with lots of options, etc.

I think “workers’ rights” have to be balanced with a recognition of overall economic realities–or the U.S. economy’s global competitiveness will wane (which will suck for all of us).  People’s attitudes toward “labour” and “management/owners” obviously depend on which chair they’re sitting in (for the record, right now, like many start-up execs, I’m sitting in both).  Again, folks on both sides are entitled to ask for as much as they can get, and the dialog is positive.  But from a high level, I think there needs to be an understanding–or at least acknowledgment–that our country’s pension/healthcare structure combined with poor management and union demands occasionally severely weaken the competitiveness of important American industries (Detroit comes to mind). 

Importantly, this is by no means “labour”‘s fault–Detroit’s owners and managers have made some horrific decisions over the years and employees are paying the price for them (as are shareholders).  But the realities of a global economy, combined with other countries’ decision to place the healthcare and pension burden on the government rather than private enterprise, are hobbling GM, et al.  If we don’t find a way to solve the problem (by, for example, transferring healthcare and pension obligations to the government), we’re going to be unable to compete with China, India, and the rest of the rapidly developing world. 

And if that happens, unlike “writers,” or “auto workers,” or “baseball players,” we won’t have any “managers/owners” to go on strike against. We’ll just have to get used to a declining standard of living while we work ever harder to pay off our national debts.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

Tagged In