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Should Goldsmiths unionize/organize

This subject is truly a difficult problem. I don’t know enough about
the economics or about how to organize unions so my post will suffer
from lack of specifics. And, as I came to realize (again) as I wrote
this - unions are really a sort of “plan B” when it comes to solving
the problem of living decently. Still, “Plan A” doesn’t always work

The following exchange in Sunday’s Digest ( 9/4) caught my eye;

    The best way for any of us to  protect our work is to get 
better at what we do. It is our creativity and our skills which
will protect us,  not a union or a government regulation. 
    Bravo Batya!!! Yours is a voice of reason and reality in this
debate! When we rely on others to protect us we simply become
slaves to the  protectors..... 

Well, of course we all ought to improve our skills and excel at our
work. It is a great joy. But it ain’t that simple even if you are
really, really good at what you do. I think I recognize the
sentiments that underlie these two statements; people who have a
great confidence in their abilities (good) but who think they can be
exempt from larger economic realities. (bad) I sense them wanting to
feel themselves as exalted above the great mass of “slaves” or
however it is they think of ordinary people. This is a manifestation
of the deeply ingrained “winners vs. losers” attitude so prevalent -
especially in the US. Of course their skills may be marvelous and
unique and should be recognized and praised. That is not the issue.
No amount of creativity and skill will protect individualists like
these when some entrepreneur can find a way to replace them with
cheap foreign labour or some new kind of machine. No amount of skill
will keep them going if they happen to come down with screwed up
lungs from poorly ventilated shops. I have nothing against
foreigners or machines, but we must remember that the replaced or
damaged individuals are not simply to be discarded like used sandwich
wrappings. They are still human beings, maybe with families to
support etc. If times change, or if their good luck changes, they
will need a cushion, some time and resources with which to change
their skills. They won’t have this cushion if they’ve been stuck, as
so many are, in low wage jobs where each paycheck barely gets
through to next payday. We all need some kind of protection which
comes not from “others” as Steve fears, but from simple and sane
agreement between us all. “Us all” being, of course, us all - which
is what we generally recognize by the name “government.” However, if
government is not doing its job, then “unions” or whatever other
collectivity people can cobble together to treat each other as
humans, not as disposable diapers.

I wish Steve Stempinski and Batya all the success they can achieve,
and all the good luck too. And if they fail, for whatever reason, I
think they’d feel a lot better being treated as though they have
some generally accepted right to live at a dignified level rather
than to be a charity case. That way they get to try their excellent
abilities again.

Now - don’t jump on me - I am not confusing union benefits with
welfare programs. This is why I started out by describing unions as
"plan B." Welfare programs are also “plan B”, likewise unemployment
insurance is “plan B.” Likewise food stamps and Workers’
Compensation. B stands for Band-Aid. These are all like the different
shaped band-aids we pull out of the first-aid box and apply to
various self-inflicted wounds that our society commits upon itself.
These are the things we have to use when things have somehow gone
wrong. We don’t have to assume any kind of malice in Humanity or
Nature to know that things will go wrong. And wrong doesn’t even
always look like wrong. Sometimes it goes by the name of "progress"
or merely “change.” Ask any buggy-whip maker.

In this trade I would support any serious attempt to organize a
guild-like certifying body - whose duties to members include skills
training and other defined benefits re working conditions etc. But
as to merely enforcing an artificial scarcity or monopoly (like De
Beers) one must calculate what leverage we have to apply - and
against whom to apply it. Remember that jewelry is only a luxury,
not a necessity like food. Its intrinsic value, if any, boils down
in hard times to so much per ounce - meltdown value. And in really
hard times most folks would trade a gold ring for a potato.

So, once again, with all best wishes to the trade and all its
workers and entrepreneurs, recognize that your own intrinsic value
is that you are a human being, not that you are a highly skilled
jeweler or whatever. If you live in a society which is organized so
that it honestly recognizes that kind of value you won’t need any
unions. But, as we’ve seen in New Orleans this week, and elsewhere
in other weeks, merely being a human being doesn’t cut a lot of ice.
Some struggles remain.

Marty in Victoria - where we took our deaf old cat, Durante, for a
walk on a leash today.

~Rant Alert~

I sense them wanting to feel themselves as exalted above the 
great mass of "slaves" or  however it is they think of ordinary
people. This is a manifestation  of the deeply ingrained "winners
vs. losers" attitude so prevalent - especially in the  US. 

//pulls out his slightly rusty soap-box

Truthfully, I consider myself a pretty durn average bench jeweler
who cares about his customers and obsesses about the quality of his
work. Never, have I ever, considered myself (ahem) an "exalted"
individual. I do, however, consider myself ambitious and
desirous of leading a life that has as few entities dictating how I
live that life, as possible. I do NOT understand how people who
choose to stand on their own two feet are automatically considered
to have a “winners vs. losers” attitude, whatever that means. In my
world there are successful individuals who work hard to succeed,
never quit, and accept failure as simply another challenge to
overcome. Unmotivated individuals, on the other hand, look for the
easy way out, seldom apply themselves, and desire protection from
the real world. I have no concept of “winners vs. losers.” Life is
not a game at which we can either win or lose.

I find it interesting that the pro-union side of this debate
unilaterally agree that entrepreneur=bad and union=good. None of
the pro-union voices have commented on the dues that are collected
which are used/misused by a hierarchy whose highest priorities
generally revolve around what is good for the hierarchy, and for
the consolidation of power for said hierarchy. Somewhere towards
the bottom of that list of priorities the welfare of the members
generally comes into play, but usually only because the members are
recognized, vaguely, as the geese that lay the golden eggs.
Inevitably, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts
absolutely.” But then I’m sure that there has never ever been a
corrupt union official. Nor has a union ever priced themselves out
of business… or something.

I don’t want to have to strike if 51% of the membership (in a
fair election) vote to strike. I don’t want to be told how, when,
and where I have to work, by union officials that want the "best"
for the majority. I want to be able to turn my back on the
unscrupulous employer by finding another place of employment. I
cannot turn my back on an unscrupulous union if they “own” all the
jobs in a given city or region. An employer I can escape, a union I

    And if they fail, for whatever reason, I think they'd feel a 
lot better being treated as though they have some generally
accepted right to live at a dignified level rather than to be a
charity case. 

If I fail I have only myself to blame, as only I own my destiny. I
am not a helpless automaton, living my life only for the sole
benefit of an entrepreneur. Nor would I choose to live it for the
benefit of a union official. And NO, I do NOT have a “right to live
at a dignified level.” I only have a “right” to live at the level
at which I am able to provide for myself and my family. If I had
a “right” to live at a certain dignified level no matter how poorly
I performed, why should I bother to perform at all? Nor do I feel I
have any right or desire for any charity, of any sort. Who is it
that hands out these aforementioned rights? And who is it that
should be forced to take food out of their own children’s mouths so
that I can be afforded these rights? A person that desires
cradle-to-grave security deserves no more than whatever leftovers
society cares to toss in their general direction.

I simply want to be left alone, to earn a living the best way that I
possibly can, with as little outside interference as possible, from
ANY entity. The old ways of self-reliance and self-sufficiency
still live on in some few of us. I have made it thus far solely
upon my own abilities, and am quite satisfied with my rather less
than stellar life to date. Since this life is not a game, I am
neither a winner nor a loser, I am simply a motivated survivor.

Please don’t do me any favors by protecting me “for my own good.”

//climbs back off his now polished and shiny soap-box…

Steve (who has said all he has to say on this subject) Stempinski

Steve’s Place
Jewelry Repair

Hello Everybody,

I’m all for protecting the worker - however I don’t know that unions
are the way to do it. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to licence
jewelers who wanted to open a store, then there would be definite
standards/levels of work. This would weed out shysters who would
just want to make a fast buck, because there would be an obvious
committment to quality. However, getting a law such as this passed
with chain stores like Wal-Mart and JC Penney most likely fighting
it would be tricky.

I agree with Steve that ultimately we are responsible for our own
destiny, but there should be laws (c’mon, REAL laws -with teeth)
governing treatment of employees. All employees, and the standards
should be nationwide.

In Texas, an employer can make you stay as long as they want to; and
as long as you get two 15 minute breaks, they can deny you the right
to use the bathroom. At one job, I was forced to work 12 hours (or
lose my job) and after my 30 minute break (given three hours into my
shift) I wasn’t allowed bathroom breaks. And it was legal - I
complained to the proper authorities and was informed that my
employer broke no laws, he simply had bad manners. I quit
eventually, but what about my coworkers who didn’t have the option
of quitting? They had children to feed, and no time to look for
better jobs. And really, for low skill levels, all jobs are equally
mind numbing and humanity dulling - just pick your hell.

I’m not campaigning for socialism or a handout, I just think the
Geneva Convention should apply to low wage jobs. And to get
something like this rolling would require more a grass-roots push to
tighten the laws; which ultimately would be better I think than
unionization. Especially in a state like Texas, which is close to
Mexico and cheap desperate labor. People willing to work should be
treated with respect, no matter what job they have.

Personally, I am self-employed as an artist-jeweler, but I do hope
to open my own store someday. I would rather follow nationwide laws
that my competitors also have to follow than be bullied by a union.

Just my two cent’s worth. Apologies for the length of this post!


In reply to Steve Stempinski–Amen!

Clearly, schools these days don’t teach anything about economics or
markets or how the world really works. If you sell your time or a
product, you are part of a market, like it or not. And with modern
travel and technology, that market is the world. You therefore have
to provide something someone wants and have to price your time or
product so that someone wants to buy it. No one owes you that. There
is no free lunch. If the government (or union) provides something to
you, it must have taken it from someone else to do it. And if you
accept, they have power over you. Personally, I consider myself grown
and prefer to make my own decisions, even when they’re bad.

And for those of you who think I must live in some gated community or
was born rich, I have worked at horrible sweatshop jobs, for large
financial corporations, for small companies, and for myself. I have
been an assistant shop steward (and got screwed by the union, as well
as the employer) and owned my own company. My Dad was an Okie and I
am the first generation to go to college–a very prestigious private
school. I got an academic scholarship and worked my way through,
attending full time, working more than full-time and raising a son
alone. Sometimes I was so exhausted I cried. I got an MBA, not
because I wanted to, but because it would help me raise my son. Was
it unfair that I couldn’t pursue the arts because it wouldn’t support
us both? Should you have been forced to contribute so I could live my

I did the corporate thing, but along the way I was downsized several
times and had to start over several times. Finally I struck out on my
own and failed several times, almost lost my house, had no medical or
dental care for 7 years, no new clothes, no nothing while I repaid
debts. I didn’t file bankruptcy although I could have. I’m doing
well enough now and can consult from my home. I’m not doing what I
want, but I built a shop on the 15 acres of land I own, have mostly
equipped it, take classes in metalwork and when the mortgage is paid,
I will finally do the metal art I’ve wanted to do for so many years.
I will, however, sell my work and treat it as a business–make things
people want for a price they are willing to pay. And if they don’t I
won’t cry and say its unfair–I’ll create better work or charge less.

Finally, for all of you who constantly complain about the rich,
guess what? ewelry isn’t a necessity and the beautiful things are
bought by the rich. Do you think Michaelangelo and Leonardo had to
please their patrons? You bet, and they still created beauty.

Now I’ll climb down from my soapbox.


Linda Holmes-Rubin
ForCapital Associates of Atlanta
Phone: 770-479-7837
Fax: 770-720-7555

Although I am hesitant to jump into this roiling black mess, I have
to say that I am not a fan of unions either. I’m all for improving
working conditions where it warrants, and providing benefits where
they should be provided, but…unions shut out a lot of people who
don’t want to play the game their way and that would be a sad, sad
thing in an industry driven by creative individuals as well as mass
producing giants.

 ...unions shut out a lot of people who don't want to play the game
their way and that would be a sad, sad thing in an industry driven
by creative individuals as well as mass producing giants. 

I wonder how many commenters on this topic have been union members.
Some of the comments suggest that the commenters are misinformed
about the basics of how unions work in this country. I have, in my
long life, held two union jobs.

Neither job was a dream job, quite the contrary, but that was why the
union was voted into the respective workplaces by the employees. In
each case, the union stood as the protector of employees who were
victimized, harassed and exploited by a management team that could
most kindly be described as dysfunctional. The union was there not
only to provide collective bargaining for wages and benefits, but
more importantly to provide protection for the workers against
unfair, capricious and even bizarre treatment from management.

Understand this- unions must be VOTED IN to workplaces by the
employees. A jewelers union would not unionize every shop and
manufacturer in the US - far from it, and workers who are treated
fairly and paid fairly have no reason to vote a union into their
shop. But if there were a jewelers union, then at they would have the
option of voting the union in if they were being treated


I have been following this thread with interest- and felt it was
time to throw my 2 cents in.

No one is asking for a free lunch, Linda. I am glad you made it
through your tough times and are coming out ahead. Your story is not
unusual - there are many of us who have had tough times, are or were
single parents, and struggle with issues like health insurance or
feeding their families. Kudos to you for making it through without
filing bankruptcy - but realize that would not even be an option for
you anymore.

A few here don’t seem to understand that unions have made our
working conditions, in every industry, far better than the
generations before us had to deal with. I need only to look in my
own family, not too many years ago, for examples of this.

I don’t know what the answer is, but the discussion to somehow
organize is a good one. Health insurance, as an example of a
necessity, might be more easily affordable as a huge group in such
an organization.

I didn’t see anyone complain about the rich - I think the point is
the growing gap between the poor and the super-wealthy. We would
only have had to watch our TV screens a couple weeks ago to see this
disparity, and how dangerous it really is.

And Michaelangelo did not kowtow to his patron, as was discovered by
the recent restoration of his work at the Sistine Chapel. He painted
many things which greatly displeased the hieracrchy of the Catholic
Church, and were subsequently painted over by someone else.


    and workers who are treated fairly and paid fairly have no
reason to vote a union into their shop. 

Hi Lee;

When I discussed unionization with my employees, the were puzzled as
to why I would have any interest in a union. I explained that it
would be unlikely that a union would compel me to pay more than I
already do, and if they did, I’d open the books and see if they
could help me figure out how to pull it off. But another reason I
suggested was this. Suppose my competition is undercutting my prices
by underpaying his employees. If my shop is a union shop, what’s to
stop us from trying to unionize his shop and level the playing
field? Then he’d have to actually outsmart and outwork me to take
market share. This is what I believe has been the unions contribution
to success in business. If you can’t resort to slave labor, you have
to work smarter, so it’s merit that raises a business, not

David L. Huffman

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.


Linda Holmes-Rubin
ForCapital Associates of Atlanta
Phone: 770-479-7837
Fax: 770-720-7555

I feel that we should form a Guild that is also a buying
Co-operative. We can buy insurance as a group then, setup retirement
accounts and many other things. But we must also take on apprentices
to keep our profession alive.

Some where along the way we have to develop business rules,
professional standards and codes of conduct.


    I feel that we should form a Guild that is also a buying
Co-operative. We can buy insurance as a group then, setup
retirement accounts and many other things. 

MJSA already offers some of these services.


Elaine Luther
Metalsmith, Certified PMC Instructor
Hard to Find Tools for Metal Clay