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Do Unions Finally Smell the Coffee?

A friend of mine, a union leader here in Chicago, once mentioned to me that he loved to drive around and count the number of cranes along the city’s skyline because it gave him a sense of how many jobs had to be filled for his rank and file members.

But even as he was saying this, I wondered if my friend (a long-time, old-school union guy) really understood the intricate relationship between cranes and his role as a union head. Because, you see, as he was talking I got the sense my friend’s notion was the cranes were merely a starting point for him, as opposed to the end product.  He, in other words, saw his role as a union leader as one that made absolute certain those cranes employed union workers.  He simply took their presence as Point A.

But I saw it, and still see it, as just the opposite.

I see my friend’s role as a union leader as one that helps build a business climate that fosters more and more cranes and other visible signs of an area’s economic growth and development.  They were the fruits of his labors, in other words, not the seed.

And I write this today because over the past few months I’ve seen any number of pieces of evidence that unions are finally starting to wake up and smell the coffee.  And as someone who has long contended he isn’t anti-union as much as he’s anti-what unions currently stand for, I have to tell you this warms my heart.

I’ve seen any number of examples since the end of last year where union leadership has seemingly become less concerned with individual jobs and salaries and more concerned with the health of its industry and the skills of its members – realizing, it would seem, that taking care of the latter would in turn ensure the former.

Consider:

This spring, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) announced it would sponsor an ongoing and tremendously innovative inner city high school-level manufacturing training program here in Chicago, the Austin Polytechnic Institute. This would indicate to me that at least one union, perhaps even more than recruiting young members, is (just maybe) concerning itself more with skill development and training. It’s a small step I know, but one in keeping with my belief that in this era, the greatest thing unions can do for their members is to train them for the jobs of tomorrow, whatever they may be. Because as a manufacturer I will tell you the issue is not so much keeping skilled workers, as it is finding them in the first place.
Then in January, Boeing workers in Washington State – just months after rejecting in a 2-to-1 vote a company proposal for wage and benefits concessions in exchange for long-term stability – voted to accept ownership’s package.  It would appear that, at long last, union leadership woke up to the fact that they’re no longer living in a bubble, but competing – just as Boeing is – in a fiercely competitive global marketplace, and they needed to scale down demands and expectations accordingly or risk losing everything.  As a result, their members now have the security of good-paying jobs and long-term stability, along with the comfort of knowing the company that employs them is better equipped to go to war against foreign competition.

And finally (and I’m sorry I didn’t write about this sooner), as a die-hard Cubs fan I just loved how the media fully grasped the importance of the late head of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), Michael Weiner, who succumbed late last year to a brain tumor. While not nearly as visible or well known as his two predecessors, Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr, both of whom had confrontational, slash-and-burn styles and would rather see full seasons and World Series cancelled than approve such socially acceptable things as drug testing, Weiner had a far greater respect for the game and its traditions – not to mention the non-cheaters among his rank and file. As a result, as a union head the man was loved and respected by players, owners and fans in ways that Miller and Fehr never were, or frankly never will be.  What’s more, he helped restore the game to a place of honor in the eyes of many, something neither of his predecessors could say.

Does this mean that unions are now focused more on the big picture than their little staterooms on the Titanic?  Who knows?  Human behavior being what it is, it could just be they’re are doing what they need to survive now and may go back to trying to kill the very thing they need, if it means in the short term more money and better benefits

But maybe – just maybe – America’s labor unions are waking up and smelling the coffee, and just maybe we’re entering into a new age of management/workforce partnership, one that — again, just maybe — will lead to an even greater era prosperity and growth for all of us.

We can only hope.

On Germany, Manufacturing and World Cup Success

So Germany won the World Cup. Bravo for them.

And if you think there is a hint of sarcasm or jealousy in my tone…well, you may be right.

Hey, I wanted the U.S. to win the World Cup. I admit it. Wanted it badly, as a matter of fact.

But you know what?  The Americans didn’t win because we weren’t the best team. The best team won. And I know the Germans were the best team because that German team was designed the best, built the best, and prepared the best.

Germany’s World Cup team as assembled was a team whose architects and builders were focused – and some might even say obsessed – on building a quality roster from top to bottom; on building a team constructed not for expedience, quick returns or any short-term benefit, but for one thing and one thing only; winning over the long haul.

Think about the Germans for a moment. There are probably no people anywhere about whom the rest of the world more loves to make definitive general assumptions or more loves to paint with a broad brush than the Germans.  Listen to how non-Germans have always talked about or described them (including so many announcers and analysts in this year’s World Cup). The Germans are always “clinical” or “ deeply analytical,” and everything they do is always done with “steely precision” or in a way that is conspicuously “devoid of emotion.”

Heck, I remember Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, began an article he wrote for Vanity Fair a few years back by broad-brushing Germany and taking great pains to detail what he described as the country’s collective and centuries-old fascination with human feces.  In the beginning of the piece he teed things off by citing dozens of German euphemisms for feces and quoting just about every notable German from Mozart and Martin Luther to Hitler, all of who seemed to feel compelled to, at some point, either talk about the stuff, write about it, or in some way reference it.

(But to Lewis’ credit, making such a broad generalization turned out to be a clever and effective way to lead into the focus of his story, which was how Germany has hoisted on its shoulders and continues to carry so many of its fellow EU partners’ toxic, foul-smelling economies.)

But as someone who operates a sales office in Berlin and who travels to Germany regularly, I will tell you such generalizations are, if not dangerous, than at least unfair.  Germans are in many ways just like people everywhere, and the more you know them the more you realize cultural generalizations are simply intellectual shorthand or a lazy man’s way of trying to make a point.

But at the risk of being accused of such shorthand, in light of Germany’s recent World Cup triumph and in light of my having just returned from ten days in the country, I will offer one generalization that seems to go to the very heart of not only why the Germans are now World Cup champions but why I continue to operate an office there.

And that is this: the German people of today, many of whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents were at least tacitly complicit in one of the darkest, most evil chapters in human history, have collectively spent the past 60 years (beginning on VE Day in 1945) rebuilding their society and (in time) reunifying their country – and doing it the right way and doing it for the long haul.

And that collective focus – and, again, some might say obsession – on building things the way they should be built, building them with quality, building them with a meticulous eye for detail, and building them to last, is what separates the Germany of today from just about every other country, if not every other culture on the planet.

That, my friends, is why Germany won the World Cup.  That’s why I continue to run a business there.  And that’s why, all sarcasm and jealousy aside, I mean it when I say to my friends and colleagues in Germany, “Bravo.”

In the world of global soccer you are weltmeister, and it couldn’t have happened to a better-built or more richly deserving team – or for that matter, a harder working or more richly deserving people.

Summer Reading List: “Factory Man”

Over the years I’ve learned that a combination meticulous research and great story telling can take almost any subject and make it not just readable, but downright fascinating. I’ve read books, for example, over the past decade or so on subjects as esoteric and ostensibly dry as rum, oysters and the global shipping industry that turned out to be page-turners. 

And who can forget author Laura Hillenbrand’s riveting best-seller Seabiscuit, a non-fiction history book offering the inside dope on, of all things, a splayed, overweight and undersized racehorse foaled over 80 years ago?

That’s why I am so excited to have recently picked up Factory Man, the first-ever book by Beth Macy, a reporter for the Roanoke Times.  According to a New York Times book review, which I stumbled upon a few weeks ago, Factory Man is the (at times) riveting story of a handful of Appalachia-based furniture companies, among them, one time industry leader, Broyhill. 

And the book apparently slowly and dramatically weaves together the unlikely story of the birth of the global furniture industry in Appalachia, its salad days, its slow decline in light of growing globalization, modernization and a glut of cheap Chinese knockoffs, and, perhaps most importantly, under the stewardship of the innovative, resourceful, principled and ferociously stubborn titular character, its ultimate reinvention and renaissance.

It also tells the tale of the feuding Broyhill scions, two highly competitive brothers who married two sisters and who settled on either side of an Appalachian peak named (what else) Broyhill. The two rival Broyhills eventually owned so much of the area that they became robber barons of the highest order and were able to leverage the skilled and dedicated local workforce to their own personal gain.

That titular character mentioned above is John Broyhill III, the grandson of Broyhill’s co-founder and his namesake, who in the eighties slowly evolved into the family’s black sheep.  Because it was John Broyhill III who, as mergers, Wall Street takeovers and mass layoffs were becoming more and more the order of the day, began telling people that such quick fixes were short-sighted, corrosive and imprudent long range strategies. 

And it was JB III (as the book calls him) who at the peak of the Chinese invasion of the mid-nineties, took the bold step of traveling to China and walking right into the lion’s den by visiting a factory near Dalian that was churning out massive quantities of exact replicas of his very own furniture. 

But rather than taking the easy way out (as so many others in his shoes might have done), entering into an agreement to partner with the owners of the Chinese plant, closing his factory back home in Virginia, and simply retailing the cheap and plentiful Chinese knockoffs throughout the U.S. at well below market prices, he does the exact opposite. 

He declares war. 

And according to the Times, that’s the moment at which Factory Man goes from being just another non-fiction account of just another David vs. Goliath tale and transforms itself into something almost Capra-esque, becoming a page-turner of the highest order. 

Without giving away too much, I’ll simply say that using some little known but powerful World Trade Organization regulations, the bound and determined “Factory Man” starts to gain a foothold in his epic battle against offshoring and cheap Chinese knockoffs and slowly but surely sets into motion a series of events that will, quite literally, keep his small town alive and save it from being swallowed whole by some toxic combination of fate, circumstance, time and geography.

What I find most comforting (and alluring) about the prospect of spending the next few days reading Factory Man is the fact that the story at its core is one many of us in our sector (regardless of our industry) have lived first hand these past few decades. 

Regardless of what we produce, regardless of our size, for almost a quarter of a century many of us found global competition exploding all around us. But the good news was, that as our competition continued to increase exponentially, so did the size of our marketplace and, more importantly, our selling options. 

And as a result, only the most near-sighted and close-minded of us spent those days obsessing about the former.  The rest of us geared up for the latter, jumping out of our shoes at what turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go global, to exponentially expand our businesses and to brighten our futures.

I can’t tell you any more about the book than that now, if only because I’ve yet to even start it myself.  But I urge you – especially if you are someone who, like me, comes to work every day, opens your tiny manufacturing plant in some industrial corner of Anytown, USA, and, much like John Broyhill III, proceeds to take dead aim on the rest of the world – pick up Factory Man

My sense is you won’t be disappointed. After all, it’s our lives in hardcover. (Then, at some point, let’s compare notes, OK?)  

Happy summer reading!