Joe Kenehan Center

Tuesday, May 20, 2003
Bargaining for the Long-Term
The United Auto Workers are getting ready to negotiate major new contracts and the union seems to making some interesting, smart choices for the future.

According to this article, the UAW is ready to sacrifice some temporary wage concessions in exchange for protections for nonunion autoworkers’ right to join the union without pressure or interference from their employers.

By making it easier for more workers in nonunion plants—especially in subcontracted parts assemblers—to join the union, workers in the auto industry stand to gain back a significant amount of the bargaining power that they’ve lost over the past several decades.

Why would the auto industry agree to changes that will strengthen the union in the long-term? In this instance, I think that business’ obsession with quarterly profit will work to benefit the workers. In the short-term, companies might boost profits by winning wage concessions. Today’s executives will let somebody else worry about a resurgent union later on, hopefully (from their point of view) several years down the line. By then, it’ll be somebody else’s problem.

For an interesting study of this kind of short-term corporate thinking, check out Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers by Robert Jackall.

The Union Primary
LA Times political analyst Ronald Brownstein on the Democratic candidates’ race to win support from the union movement and how that race is different now than it was in 1984.

Other union news . . .
GE employees might strike for affordable health care.

More NYT/Steven Greenhouse on the new leader of ULLICO.

And also, the NYT/Steven Greenhouse’s nostalgic look back on New York labor in the 70s.

When Unions Became Constitutional
For an unconventional look back at the moment when American workers finally won the right to form unions, I recommend The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox: A Year in the Life of a Supreme Court Clerk in FDR's Washington.

Knox served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice James McReynolds during the crucial Supreme Court term of 1936-1937, when the Court’s unstinting opposition to the New Deal ceased. Among other major decisions, the Court ruled that the Wagner Act -- which established the right to form unions as a federal right -- was constitutional. In doing so, the Court reversed course from many previous rulings, deciding that government has the right to protect basic wage and workplace standards after all.

But politics aside, the Knox memoir is most rewarding in capturing a moment in the history of the Court and the history of Washington, D.C.

Justice McReynolds was a deeply conservative Kentucky Democrat who was openly anti-Semitic and viciously racist. During Knox’s time with McReynolds, the justice refused to move into the new Supreme Court building and instead continued to work from his luxury apartment at 2400 16th Street NW, in a building that’s now called the Envoy.

Knox, an ambitious young lawyer freshly graduated from Harvard Law, struggled to serve the McReynolds in the face of the justice’s unstinting coldness and impetuous arrogance.

Knox recounts how closely he worked alongside McReynold’s African-American household staff: a messenger named Harry Parker and a cook named Mary Diggs. Parker and Diggs, long accustomed to dealing with the Justice, help Knox adjust and respond to McReynold’s moody demands. Knox comes to admire and respect Parker and Diggs enormously, despite McReynold’s warnings about becoming too close to “darkies.” (In a telling detail, no other members of the Supreme Court attended McReynold's funeral. Several attended Harry Parker's.)

Knox’s writing is wooden and maladroit, but even so his memoir is vivid portrait of a different and in many ways much worse America. David Garrow and Dennis Hutchinson bookend the memoir with a foreword and afterward that provide valuable insight and context.