(The following interview with former Michigan State University Professor and Labor Economist Jack Stieber--who died at the age of 91 in March 2011—about historic labor issues was previously published in the February 5, 1997 issue of the Aquarian/Downtown alternative weekly newspaper.)
Aquarian/Downtown: What about the effect on labor and on the labor movement of the new workfare programs, forcing welfare recipients to work for their benefits, NAFTA, globalization? What do you think the effect of that will be in the 21st Century? Is that really insignificant historically?
Stieber: It's not that insignificant. And I think it will make it more difficult, as it is today, for unions to maintain the kind of power that they have had in certain industries. That's inevitable.
Of course, when you talk about workfare: One the one hand you may be supportive of unions and feel that it's very important that unions should grow and remain as a counter-balance to large industry. On the other hand, we also want people who are unemployed, on welfare, to be able to improve their lives as well.
There is an apparent conflict, for example, as you probably read, in New York City, right now. Some of the unions are starting to raise questions about the new welfare bill which requires that people go off welfare and get jobs.
Well, one way of getting them off welfare and on to jobs is to have them do some of the kind of work that, ordinarily, would be done by union members. And some of the unions have raised questions about this. On the one hand, they don't want people who have been unemployed or on welfare to take their jobs. On the other hand, they are sympathetic to the people to be able to get jobs and to get off welfare.
So it presents a conflict where they have to sort of walk a tightrope. On the one hand, protecting their membership. And, on the other hand, not seeming to stand in the way of people who are trying to improve their situation.
As far as NAFTA is concerned: on the one hand, it does mean that you might lose jobs--and you do lose jobs to a place like Mexico. On the other hand, if you are interested in workers generally, you should also be interested not only in workers in the United States. There are workers in Mexico too. And they're much worse off than workers here.
Yet the A.F. of L.-C.I.O. opposed NAFTA, strictly on the grounds: "Well, this may hurt our members. Because some industries are going to leave and do the work in Mexico." But Mexico isn't the only place. They can do the work in Thailand. They can do it in Burma. You know, any one of these countries. Indonesia and so on. But the flip side of that is that, to the extent that some of the jobs that are in the United States go to these other countries, people in these other countries improve their situation. And, as a result, our ability to export to them is also improved. So that it's not all one-sided.
Aquarian/Downtown: What about the impact on wages? Some people argue that part of the reason that real wages are actually declining--you know, the downsizing of the high-wage jobs being replaced by people working in supermarkets--is related to this globalization?
Stieber: Well, I think it is. I think that the jobs that are being created today--many of them--are much lower-paying jobs than the ones that have been lost as a result of the downsizing. And also, as a result of being able to have work done outside the United States at wages much lower than we pay in the United States.
They are developing countries who are in a situation where we might have been a hundred years ago. And they have to get their start in the same way as we did ours. So that the best position is to not only do work that comes from countries like the United States and Western Europe, but also to have sufficient resources and be able, actually, to buy from these countries.
So that it does hurt the labor movement. And because labor movements are national movements--they're not international, even though you have organizations which are international like the International Metalworkers and other unions that meet maybe once, or two or three times a year--bargaining does not go on, on an international basis. It goes on within your own industry and within your own company and within your own country. So that it's inevitable that unions will have to take a position: "We have to protect our members." And one of the positions which labor took is "We think that NAFTA is going to hurt American workers."
I think, in the short-run, this is probably true. But in the longer run, I think it will rebound to the benefit of American workers. And, at the same time, also help workers in Mexico. Of course, Canada is a part of NAFTA, also. And while Canadian wages are somewhat lower than the United States, labor is much stronger in Canada than it is in the United States.
Aquarian/Downtown: When you say "the long-run." I mean, you got a situation now. Like in New York, the official unemployment rate--I just called up the Bureau of Labor Statistics--is 9.1 percent [in 1997]. Much higher than the national average. The African-American unemployment rate is 10.5 percent [in 1997]. When you say "long-run improvement," what happens in the short-run? Is "long-run" five years, 10 years?
Stieber: It's probably much longer than that. And the unemployment rate--I would be surprised if it was as high as nine percent [in 1997].
In Massachusetts you probably have an unemployment rate of about 4 percent [in 1997]. In Michigan it's about 4 percent [in 1997]. Unemployment has never been the same all over the country. It's always varied. In California, it sometimes has been among the lowest. Now it's among the highest.
In Michigan, for example, we often have been among the higher unemployment levels, when the automobile industry is down.
Aquarian/Downtown: The argument that has been made by those who say the Labor Department is spinning the figures for the media in a politically partisan way is that there are regional variations. And in the places like New York which had high wages, it's much higher. The Northeast has not benefited from whatever recovery of the '90s, and in California, for instance, it's a high rate for Hispanics. It's an uneven kind of thing.
Stieber: It's always been uneven. But I think it's not surprising that it would be uneven because you have different industries in different parts of the country. Some industries are doing well. Others are not doing well. I don't know enough about California, particularly. But I suppose this is one of the reasons why in California you find that they are passing laws which are most undesirable, in terms of effects upon immigrants, "illegal" or legal for that matter. Because whenever you have a problem, you look for somebody to blame. And they say "Well, the people who are responsible for our unemployment rate are these `illegals' that are coming in from Mexico. And taking jobs or wages that American workers are not prepared to accept."
Aquarian/Downtown: In a sense, the scapegoating appears to be a kind of anxiety. One way it was expressed was in the Buchanan vote [in 1996 presidential election]. In terms of the short-term economic suffering that the victims of downsizing are experiencing, how long a period of time will this suffering last? And can the labor movement respond?
Stieber: The labor movement responds by doing the best job they can to protect the workers and trying to organize the workers. But, you know, it's not inevitable that the United States should be the highest wage country in the world. It's not so long ago that workers in the United States were making the most money of any other country. And the second one was Great Britain.
The United States is no longer at the top of the heap. We're maybe number four or five. [in 1997]. How has this taken place? It's taken place because over a period of 40, 50 years these other countries have developed. In a sense, some of them havae actually benefited from the fact that they lost the war. In other words, Germany lost the war so their industry was destroyed. And we helped them rebuilt it. is anybody prepared to say now that that was a mistake? I don't think so.
But I think these countries have become major competitors to the United States. In some countries the reason they are doing well is their labaor movement is more effective than in the United States. In Germany that's true. And in Sweden that is true. Less true in Japan because the labor movement there is organized in a different fashion. The United States was once the highest-paying country. It's now maybe fourth or fifth. But American workers earn more than most other workers.
So globalization does have the effect of reducing the clout of unions in the welathiest countries. On the other hand, it does have the effect of improving the situation in those countries where workers have always been among the poorest.
Now, hwo long it will take? I don't know. Certainly not in our lifetime. But I think the job of unions is to do their best to protect their workers, and yet, to recognize that we're part of one world. American workers may be harmed by improving the lot of Mexican workers or Indonesians or whatever. But one shouldn't turn a blind eye to it. And I think the American labor movement recognizes that.
On the other hand, I don't see that we're going to come back to a point where unions will represent 20, 25, 30 percent of the labor force. (end of article)