How important is it to Japan's economy to continue selling Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans? How crucial is it to its job market? How many primary and secondary jobs in the manufacturing sector has the auto industry created? Are the rewards of sustaining and expanding the Japanese auto industry worth the risk of occasionally getting caught cheating?
A couple of weeks ago (September 27), the LA Times reported in a tiny story on page two of the Business section that some Japanese companies had pled guilty to auto parts price-fixing. Considering Japan's unfortunate history of economic duplicity and mischief, this comes as no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention.
According to an article, "Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Hitachi Automotive Systems, and seven other Japanese companies agreed to plead guilty and pay a total of $740 million in fines in a price-fixing conspiracy targeting automakers that included General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co." It concluded by noting that, in its on-going investigation into auto parts price-fixing, the U.S. Department of Justice has already levied $1.6 billion in fines.
Not that American businesses are innocent. Not that American businesses (or the U.S. government, for that matter) haven't been guilty of their share of unethical and downright criminal activities. Price-fixing, padding of defense contracts, false advertising, insider trading, tax fraud, cheating workers out of their wages, etc., these are part and parcel of the American business landscape.
My beef isn't that capitalism is intrinsically flawed, or that the governments of certain Asian countries subsidize and manipulate national industries in order to squelch foreign competition, or that Japan gained entry into the U.S. market by illegally "dumping" cars (selling them below-cost), or that U.S. companies are now shipping our jobs to low-wage Third World countries, or that Wall Street is investing in those outsourcing companies.
Rather, my complaint is more parochial. My complaint is that, in response to Japan's spectacular (albeit illegal) entry into the U.S. market, too many people drew the erroneous conclusion that American workers weren't capable of producing a top-quality car, and, more specifically, that labor union members were inferior workers. You still hear people today parrot that ridiculous factoid.
The notion that union workers are substandard is one of those toxic myths that have been around since post-Reagan Republicans first began their assault on organized labor. In truth, any objective observer will tell you that union workers tend to be better than non-union workers. Why? Because jobs that offer high wages, generous benefits and good working conditions (i.e., union jobs) will attract the best workers in a community. Why wouldn't they?
And this may be a silly question, but who do we think built the rocket that put Neil Armstrong on the moon, in 1969? Who do we think assembled it? Robots? Scabs? Chinese factory workers?
Apparently, people have forgotten that NASA employed thousands of unionized workers, including members of the IFPTE, IAM, IBEW, UAW, and a dozen other unions. And take the tragic 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center. Every one of those 343 firefighters and paramedics who died heroically was a union member.
While it annoys the hell out of us that Republicans and faux-libertarians vilify labor unions, it doesn't confuse us. That's because we realize people who have money want to keep it, which is why they pay their employees as little as possible. Union workers cost more. They cost more and they expect to work with dignity, which is why employers resist them. We may not agree with or respect that view, but we understand it.
But what we don't understand is why so many regular working people think labor unions are "bad" for America. Even if the "collectivist" aspect of unionism sticks in their craw, you'd think that in a country like ours, with so many ornery people just waiting for an opportunity to rebel, they would rejoice at standing up to their bosses. Instead, they meekly take what's offered. No wonder the middle-class is shrinking.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd edition), is a former union rep.