The Atlantic: The New Industrial Belt: The Deep South


The two shifting factors in the industrial world continue to be labor and energy. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, energy was local, and factories were placed near rivers first, then near coal seams. Then, labor became local, as widening gaps in cost of living brought rise to low cost labor pools available in poorer countries in Asia and South America.

As manufacturing shifts back to the United States (and it is in a big way), it represents the last frontier of local energy: cheap natural gas makes the US inexpensive, regardless of how much you pay the workers. And since factories are becoming more automated, the only labor you need anymore would have commanded higher wages anyways, since your workforce is now technicians, engineers and skilled laborers, as opposed to the unskilled labor that was in high demand on a factory floor in the fifties.

And this all makes me wonder about the role of unions in the US. Organized labor is a need, and we see this when looking at the real bottom of the barrel jobs in this country, which are service jobs. But in manufacturing, the relationships between unions and firms have been strained, especially as unions like the UAW cheerily drove their industry to the brink by making inflexible demands. Like the corporations they seek to counterbalance, there are good unions and bad ones. But when open shops are succeeding in the way they are in the south, organized labor needs to reposition itself as a negotiating partner, not an oppositional force. It may well be I’m just more of a fan of how Germany does it…there’s way too much toxicity and dysfunction in both labor and anti-labor movements in the US.


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