To Nancie at Moonfishdesign–
I know very well what unions have done in the past–my grandfather
and father worked in coal mines and my grandfather died of black
lung in the 1970’s. My grandmother got nothing by the way, the union
didn’t protect her. My point is that jewelry making is a very
different industry and these are very different times. For example,
there is little or no creativity in being a miner and while you need
some skills, they are those most can learn. Mining organizations are
large, employ a lot of people, and require huge capital investments.
And those that invest the capital must have a certain return that
makes the risk worth it, otherwise they invest in something else.
Also, there is nothing special about coal, its a commodity. But
like jewelry, coal is now part of a world market–it can now be
mined and shipped cheaper than local production in some areas, which
is why some mines have closed. These days, the very basic health
and safety issues that unions fought for have been addressed by the
government with OSHA rules, workmans’ compensation, unemployment
insurance, discrimination laws and EPA rules.
Jewelry making on the other hand, is usually done in comparatively
small shops, does not require a huge capital investment, but does
require some skill–a lot of skill for those who do it well. And
creativity plays a big role in higher end products. There is also a
wide variety in workplaces–in size, products and customers. The one
aspect the industries share is that both have become world markets.
Many have complained of cheap, mass produced products from foreign
countries. Jewelry, being small and light, is very easy and cheap to
ship. Hand labor, and even high level skills, are relatively cheap in
many third-world countries. The pitifully low wage to you can be a
good wage to someone whose choices are laborer or subsistence farmer.
Paying US wages there is completely unrealistic–no one would do that
because shipping costs would make the product more expensive than
that made in the US. No one would buy, and the third world worker is
back to laboring or farming. Selling in a first world market is his
ticket to a better life.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the insecurity of someone in a
changing industry. Most of my early career was in banking, which
underwent wave after wave of consolidation and lay-offs in the
1980’s and 1990’s. I went from $90K per year with full benefits to
$285 per week unemployment and it was a massive shock. But I don’t
think unions are the answer today for the jewelry industry. There is
too much competition on the low end. I think the answer is what many
on the list have done–concentrate on the high end, use creativity to
make products that are unique, tailored to the individual client.
That really can’t be done from afar. Most importantly, you need to
educate and sell the public on the value of what you do.
This is where I think an organization can help–just not a union. A
self-policing group that sets certain standards, offers training and
testing, and most importantly, markets the value of these skills to
the buying public can help sustain the industry. You need to sell the
public on the value of the certification as a goldsmith, designer,
gemologist or whatever. Explain what to look for, why it is better,
and above all, sell the exclusivity, the creativity, the value, the
emotional meaning of your product. Forget the cheap stuff and the
cheap clients. Let Walmart sell them the stuff from China. Then, as
the organization proves its value, it perhaps can get group insurance
rates and other benefits for its members. But it can’t do that until
it proves value to customers.
That being said, its inevitable that some in the jewelry industry
will lose their jobs because the high end market is much smaller and
takes a level of skill not all can achieve. Sorry, but nothing in
life is guaranteed. Make you living elsewhere and make jewelry for
the joy of it, as a hobby.
Finally, I have a philosophical dislike of unions, even though I have
been a member of them. I don’t like being told what to do or not do.
And unions are notorious for silly work rules and not wanting some to
work harder and better and be rewarded over those that don’t. To
those who have said unions are voted in–that’s true, but once in,
all newcomers must join and must pay dues and watch their dues get
used, for example, to support political ideas and parties with which
they may not agree. They have no choice and decertifying a union is
difficult and sometimes dangerous. Organized crime is not completely
a thing of the past.
ForCapital Associates of Atlanta