Here’s a spectacle: conservative politicians outraged that a multinational corporation should actually want to consult its workers. As I write, workers at the Chattanooga, TN Volkswagen plant are voting on whether to unionize, a move that management actually wants so it can institute worker-management councils to consider plant efficiencies, as German companies do in Deutschland. If they do, Tennessee Republican pols may not approve incentives to VW to expand the plant. What’s that got to do with academic workers? One of the prime arguments being used against unionization in Chattanooga is darn similar to one against academics unionizing—and just as wrong.
One of the central tropes of the anti-union campaign, whether the billboards around Chattanooga or the rhetoric coming from pols like former Chattanooga mayor and current senator Bob Corker, is that unions killed the US auto industry. Corker knows what he knows, by gum, and puts it in the same frame tbat the executives of the Big Three automakers used to blame their near-demise in 2008. Too high labor costs! Too big pension! In other words, the same that we’ve heard trotted out against academic unions (those darn faculty salaries are what’s causing the rise of tuition!).
There’s only one problem with the “unions killed Detroit” narrative: it doesn’t hold up against even the most cursory examination of the evidence. For one, US auto labor costs are actually lower than those in some other countries; when Daimler Benz “merged with” (really bought) Chrysler, it was partly because Chrysler’s hourly costs were considerably lower than Daimler’s. But here’s the real test: if US union-plant labor costs were so high, one would expect that US-made cars to be unable to compete with foreign cars on price. But anyone who shopped for a car in the 2000s (or was subjected to enough commercials) knows just the opposite: the Ford Taurus and Chevy Impala were both considerably cheaper than the Honda Accord or the Toyota Camry, but still weren’t selling. Yes, the Detroit automakers had labor costs. But if they had managed to invest in design, plant technology, and engaging with their labor, they could have made competitive cars. Poor management and underinvestment hurt the automakers, not works.
And so here I am in academia, where faculty salaries have been blamed for rising tuition (including by our sitting His Irrelevancy). And yet we know from various studies, all sorts of other factors are far more determinative, not least of which the increase in the number and salaries of the very administrators who blame faculty for their own inability to run institutions well.