NLRB tried to save America from dumb, unskilled Southern workers

posted at 9:24 pm on June 20, 2011 by J.E. Dyer

I had to check my paper copy of the Wall Street Journal today to make sure this wasn’t some elaborate prank.  Then I double-checked what year it is, to make sure I hadn’t been slingshotted around the sun and found myself back in 1975.

That’s about when I remember it last being routine for Rust Belt lawyers to publicly disparage the skills and education of people from the South.  The only thing missing from the op-ed by Chicago-based lawyer Thomas Geoghegan is the word “hick” or “hillbilly.”  WSJ is to be applauded for its determination to feature different viewpoints, but Geoghegan’s piece certainly pushes the envelope.

The topic is the NLRB ruling against Boeing moving its assembly plant for the Dreamliner to South Carolina.  And it really is as bad as my intro suggests.  Go read it, if you think I may be cherry-picking or making a mountain out of a molehill.  I’ll wait.  OK, here’s that last paragraph again:

Most depressing of all, Boeing’s move would send a market signal to those considering a career in engineering or high-skilled manufacturing …: Don’t go to engineering school, don’t bother with fancy apprenticeships, don’t invest in skills.

In case you miss the point of the piece, here’s another go at it:  “We should be aghast that Boeing is sending a big fat market signal that it wants a less-skilled, lower-quality work force.”

And this:

… because of [our] trade deficit, foreign creditors have the country in their clutches. That’s not because of our labor costs … It’s because we have too many poorly educated and low-skilled workers that are simply unable to compete.

And Boeing wants to turn the manufacture of airplanes – airplanes! – over to these poorly educated, low-skilled workers in South Carolina.

Here’s a weird fact, though.  There is already a plant manufacturing rear-fuselage elements for Boeing in South Carolina.  (The Dreamliner final-assembly plant that opened 10 June is located next to it.)  South Carolina also has a BMW plant, a Honda plant, a Bosch plant, a Caterpillar plant, an American LaFrance plant (fire engines and ambulances), and a Daimler plant, all employing highly-skilled labor to manufacture big, intricate stuff that has to work.  That’s in addition to the Milliken, BASF, GE, Core, Bose, BP, DAK, DuPont, Eastman, Mitsubishi, Albemarle, MeadWestvaco, PhilChem, Roche, Mount Vernon Mills, Invista, Metromont, Johns Manville, Alcoa, Kimberly-Clark, Shaw, Jarrett, Mohawk, Anderson, AccuTrex, Sonoco, and Cox Industries plants – and those are just the ones I recognized by industry as I looked through the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance website.  I left out a bunch of other ones.

Should I go on?  If Southern manufacturing workers are a national liability, we’re in big trouble.  All those aircraft engines being mishandled at the Pratt & Whitney plant in Georgia.  Shoddy VWs and Nissans coming out of Tennessee, Hyundai clunkers being puked out of Alabama, lousy Kias flooding the market from Georgia, Toyota risking its customers on the gap-toothed th’owbacks who show up with employment applications in Mississippi.

Texas is going to get us all killed: there are 248 separate listings for aircraft and aircraft parts manufacturers just in the Dallas area alone.  And let’s not even get started on all the scary, substandard manufacturing going on in North Carolina, where Honda headquarters its global aircraft-components manufacturing, and thousands of non-agricultural manufacturers are heaving chemicals, plastics, textiles, engine parts, computer parts, airplane and vehicle parts, and who know what else at an unsuspecting market every day of the year.

It’s a meltdown.  So many things are now manufactured in the poorly educated, low-skilled South, it’s a wonder you’re not dead yet.

Just a couple of sober points.  One, the South Carolina average manufacturing wage of $14 an hour isn’t what the most experienced workers, with the most difficult skill-sets and the longest time on the job, make.  Calculating the state’s average wage (for all “production” workers) takes into account lower-wage workers like food processors ($8-12 per hour), sewing-machine operators ($10 an hour), and furniture finishers ($11 an hour).

But first-line supervisors in equipment manufacturing plants make over $25 an hour. Computerized-machine operators in manufacturing make over $20 an hour; operators of grinding, lapping, buffing, and polishing machines make over $19 an hour, and welders, solderers, and brazers make $16-17 an hour.  The average skilled manufacturing worker in an industry like Boeing’s is making $16-21 an hour in South Carolina – and that’s an average.  Some workers make more, depending on skills, seniority, and position.

The average in Washington State, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was $16.75 per hour, for all “production” workers in the same period (figures are for 2010).  Mr. Geoghegan pulls the demagogue’s trick of comparing the South Carolina state average with the union pay of some (not all) Boeing workers in Washington.  The actual wage differential for the same types of work is $1-3 an hour – not $14.

The second point relates to Geoghegan’s discussion of the Boeing “retaliation” against past worker strikes in Washington.  Geoghegan makes the supremely cynical case that if the CEO of Boeing had simply kept his mouth shut about moving to South Carolina because of the cost of strikes in Washington, he could have brought off the move without interference from the Feds.

But it is a corrupt kind of “law” that can be gotten around so easily.  The purpose of properly-constituted law is not to show meaningless solidarity with unions.  It is to define what government will prosecute and punish.  Law that has to be ignored, gamed, and gotten around in order for human life to function – and law that can be ignored, gamed, and gotten around – loses the respect of the people, and corrupts their consciences and the consciences of government officials.  If the law in question is so unlikely to be enforced, then the most important point of all is that we don’t need it in the first place.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.

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