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Monday, February 13, 2006

Featherbedding

At one time in American history, unions were necessary to improve the working conditions of Americans. However, in learning history, I was struck by how little time it took for unions to start doing things that were wrong. One tactic, since banned, was featherbedding: forcing companies to keep paying workers who were no longer needed to do the job.

Little did I know featherbedding was alive and well in dying union industries.

All day, Judy Rowe sits in a room at a large, old Delphi Corp. auto parts plant here, reading, sewing or staring into space.

For this she earns $31.80 an hour.

There are 70 people in this room, all employed by Michigan-based Delphi and protected by the United Auto Workers union. They clock in at 6 a.m. and clock out at 2:30 p.m.

But there is nothing for them to do.

"I think I'm slipping into a depression," said Rowe, who has been languishing for six years in this strange and very unique form of unionized employment limbo known as the jobs bank.

If there was work to do, they would be on the manufacturing lines. But there isn't. And they can't be laid off because their union contracts includes this unique provision.

The jobs bank is a bullpen of sorts for surplus workers. It was designed two decades ago as a temporary haven that has become a permanent and expensive catch basin for declining auto industry companies.



In a way, the concept makes sense: demand will rise and fall, so more workers may be needed one month, less the next. And people need money. If they can't work, they may move away to take another job, and these workers won't be around when later needed.

But that only works when demand for workers stays around the same level. It's clear the demand for auto workers is permanently lower.

In an ideal world, the UAW would recognize that economic reality is such that many of these workers will never work the assembly line again, and voluntarily reduce the size of the job pool. That would free these workers to do something more productive. However, the UAW will not allow its power to be reduced, no matter how many companies it drives into bankruptcy.

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