Feature

The case for unions in manufacturing

For certain companies, unionized workers are “not a cost but an asset.”

Adam DavidsonThe New York Times

For certain companies, unionized workers are “not a cost but an asset,” said Adam Davidson. Take Harley-Davidson. During the Great Recession, the famed motorcycle-maker “was close to collapse.” But with its image as an “American blue-collar, working-man brand,” it could hardly be seen busting its union, moving its operations to Mexico, or automating its production line with robots. Forced to find “an alternative to the common narrative of American manufacturing,” Harley redesigned its production system so that workers “created more value than they cost” by making the most of their experience and flexibility. The company has now turned its factory in York, Pa., into “a manufacturing role model,” boosting employee morale, quality, and—most importantly—share price. A similar approach has worked wonders in Germany, where the law calls for powerful work councils, “which force manufacturers to pay and treat workers well” and leave companies with “no choice but to focus on making high-quality precision goods that merit the higher costs that can cover a more expensive workforce.” It’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but for companies “with strong brand associations, customizable product lines, and world-class equipment and processes,” skimping on worker pay is not the best route to healthy profits.

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