Chinese flexibility and union rules

Last year President Barack Obama met with Apple CEO Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley executives, and asked what it would take to have Apple’s iPhone manufactured in the United States.  Jobs said nothing could bring iPhone manufacturing back to the U.S.  The New York Times published a good article last month explaining why.

Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul.  New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.   A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the [Apple] executive.  Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.  “The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

via NYTimes.com.

Thomas Friedman wrote a column saying American workers have no future unless they can compete with that Chinese awesomeness.  But I don’t know of any American workers who would get up at midnight for a 12-hour shift on a biscuit and cup of tea unless they were (1) slaves, (2) prisoners or (3) in the military, the latter of which was held up by President Obama in his State of the Union address as a role model for society.

Working conditions in China, in my opinion, are the result not so much of the invisible hand of competition as the iron fist of government suppression.  Workers aren’t free to join unions and bargain collectively for better conditions.  Complaining will get you blacklisted, and forming a union is against the law.  The only way of protest open is the traditional Chinese option of threatening or committing suicide.

In the United States, labor unions in their heyday had work rules.  They defined exactly what an individual worker could and couldn’t be required to do.  In return many of the unions took on the responsibility of training apprentices in the skills that employers now say are lacking.

I remember working on newspapers in the days of hot type, when composing rooms were ruled by the International Typographers Union, one of the strongest and also most democratically run U.S. unions.  One ITU rule was that nobody but a union member could touch type metal.  The compositors and typesetters would all watch any newcomer out of the corner of their eyes, and if he let his hand fall idly on a tray of type, all work in the composing room would instantly stop.  Good fun!

Like anything else, union work restrictions can be carried too far.  But the alternative is unscheduled 12-hour shifts on subsistence wages, and a biscuit and a cup of tea.

Click on Apple, America and a Squeezed Middle Class for the full New York Times article, which is excellent.

Click on Apple’s iPad and the Human Costs for Workers in China for another Times article on the same subject.

Click on Making It in America for a report in The Atlantic on a U.S. company’s struggle to keep manufacturing in the United States.

Click on Average Is Over for Thomas Friedman’s column.

Click on In Steve’s Time Machine, nobody rides clean for a good post on the left-libertarian Psychopolitik web log.

I use Apple products.  I don’t have any reason to think the late Steve Jobs or Apple Computer were or are worse than other Silicon Valley companies or executives, nor that electronics companies are worse in this respect than other kinds of companies. While I don’t think Jobs or Apple should be singled out, neither do I think “everybody does it” constitutes an excuse.

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