“If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark.”
Over the Thanksgiving holiday I was a part of the usual family dinners and of course the subject of current events get brought up. One subject discussed was the decline of American manufacturing and competitiveness. One family friend declared:
It’s all the unions’ fault!
I understand the logic behind his thoughts: Unions ensure higher wages and benefits, the workers get lazy, making it more productive and cost effective to manufacture somewhere else where unions don’t exist.
But is that really true? Doesn’t seem like it.
Countries that are more competitive than the US have some of the highest rates of union membership.
I swear I’m not shitting you. Even I was surprised at what I found.
The World Economic Forum ranks countries by global competitiveness on a yearly basis. Here are the results for 2010.
The OECD collects useful statistics on countries. Here is a list of countries organized by union membership density.
Here are the top 10 countries ranked by competitiveness. To the right is the latest union membership density for that particular country:
1 Switzerland 17.8%
2 Singapore N/A
3 Sweden 68.4%
4 Finland 70%
5 United States 11.4%
6 Germany 18.6%
7 Netherlands 19.4%
8 Denmark 68.8%
9 Japan 18.4%
10 UK 26.5%
What surprised me was how high the union membership rates were for countries like Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. You’d figure that countries with almost a 70% union membership would rank very low in competitiveness. Quite the contrary. These countries are some of the most competitive in the world and rank higher than the US.
Curiously enough, GDP powerhouse France is ranked way down at number 18 in competitiveness right after Saudi Arabia. Surprisingly, it’s union membership rate is lower than the US at 7.6%!
I think it’s pretty safe to say that union membership rates don’t affect a country’s competitiveness. In fact, it looks like it helps!
The Auto Industry
Usually the dinner table discussions about unions digress to the auto industry. Now these days most people in the US prefer Japanese-made over US-made cars. The narrative here in the US has been that it was the unions fault.
Again, if unions stifle competitiveness, how could Japan overtake the domestice auto sales in the US with a union membership twice that of the US?
I posted a TED talk above about income inequality. You should watch the whole thing. Here in the US we have had an unprecedented rise in income inequality.
So what? Well, the speaker in the TED talk makes some really good observations on how income inequality is correlated with health, murder rate, trustworthiness, mental illness, and other societal characteristics.
The countries that rank the best on income equality are Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Japan: Countries with very high union membership rates. Here in the US, studies have shown the rise in income inequality is correlated with the decline of union membership which was around 30% in the late 1970’s.
So what does this have to do with the VFX industry? Well it’s further evidence of the epiphany that I had when I was a member of The Animation Guild. I used to be anti-union but when finally getting a chance to be a member and seeing what the union did for me by providing portable health and retirement benefits and the enforcement of labor laws, I strongly felt that is could be a solution that not only makes our lives better, but makes us more competitive.