Should Goldsmiths unionize/organize?

Hi all, I’ve been giving a good deal of thought to the discussion of
whether or not goldsmiths should unionize, and I’d like to offer some
perspective from both sides of the fence. When I was younger, I
worked at a couple of different union shops (in other industries)
and, while there, paid attention to what went on around me, and some
of the results of it, beyond the factory walls. Like any education,
there were god and bad parts, and plenty of insights along the way.
On the one hand, the idea of collective bargaining is extremely
appealing, especially where such might bring about more and better
healthcare and other insurance options, along with lowered costs in
those and other group-related expenses. My wife’s family has always
been active in the union ‘game’, going back to the 1940’s, and she,
her parents, her grandparents and many of our cousins (on her side)
are all either active labor organizers, attorneys and mediators, or
educators active in the movement, more used to fitting into an
existing system than creating any new ones.

On the other hand, my family comes from primarily entrepreneurial
roots: with the exception of my brother, every man on both sides of
my family for at least the last few generations has been
self-employed, either as a craftsman, musician, technician, doctor,
dentist or lawyer, steadfastly hellbent on inventing our own
"wheels", rather than riding on those pre-ordained by others. (As you
can probably imagine, holiday dinnertime discussions are often
lively, to say the least, since our concepts of how to overcome
challenges are often so diametrically opposed.) Which presents me
with the perfect segue back to the discussion at hand: unionization.

One of the great things about unions is that they help keep the folks
at the bottom of the ladder from being crushed by the weight of those
at the top. In most unions, a system has been emplaced and embraced
in which there is a step-by-step process by which newcomers can grow
into their respective trades, and old-timers can rest assured that no
young whippersnapper will ever force them out of their employment. In
short, they (at least seem) to offer the promises of training and
relatively steady work, all neatly wrapped in a long-term ‘safety
net’ for all who toe the mark, pay their monthly dues, and don’t make
too many waves. Those who do are roundly drummed out of the crowd,
and forced to either trade professions or scratch for a living
elsewhere. Perhaps the greatest upside to unionization is the
standardization of fees andlabor rates, so that everyone who stays
within the framework can be pretty well assured of job security and
reasonably high hourly incomes, relative to those who are not part of
their club.

Ah, but (to borrow from Shakespeare) “therein lies the rub”! The very
wage and benefit levels which establish many unions’ basis of appeal
to members and prospects automatically lead to the skyrocketing
inflation of finished product costs and retail prices and,
frequently, to their employers’ ruination, as a result. If a
craftsman earning $17.50 an hour and not receiving any healthcare
benefits joins a union which promises him or her a starting wage of
$35 an hour, and a sliding scale up to $67 an hour (or some such
figure) with full benefits and an irrevocable seniority after a
certain number of years, five things are all but certain to happen,
as a result.

First, the employer’s product prices leap, significantly, to
accommodate the expenses added by the strain of the newly unionized
shop’s dues and those benefits it has now been mandated to provide,
plus the added tax burden those pay hikes necessitate. Second, if a
sufficient number of consumers in that shop’s marketing area are also
unionized, the shop shares in the fiscal benefits of a temporary
boom, and everyone is lulled into a sense of security and a belief
that “this is the way things will always be”. If not, it suffers a
marked downturn in income, since it has suddenly been priced out of
the market.

Third, the average worker’s standard of living rises, due to the
addition of that newly found income. With that new income and those
higher living standards come an expanded sense of capacity, and more
lavish spending habits. As the worker continues his/her advancement
in the trade shop, those promised wage and benefit increases occur,
further expanding the per-unit costs of each item that person’s hands
touch, so in order to keep products within the reach of the average
customer, production jobs migrate to either the least paid newcomers
or to offshore factories, where the goods can still be manufactured
at reasonable prices (usually despite lesser individual item finish
qualities) Fourth, the boom slows to a crawl (as all booms do, after
their cycle of “X” number of years), and fewer and fewer people are
able to maintain their old spending habits, so the elevated product
prices brought on by the shop’s unionization begin to keep them away
from those previously-traveled doors. This leads to even fewer
purchases, less profitability and the end of the business, as it used
to be known. Finally, caught between the insurmountable pressures of
spiralling labor and materials costs and diminished consumer dollars,
the manufacturer lays off workers and is forced into Chapter 11
reorganization, or simply shuts its doors and walks away, leaving all
of those who’d unionized as a means of living ‘the good life’ looking
through the want ads for something else to do with their time (or
applying for positions at the ‘big box’ stores).

Like many other ideas and ideals, I think that the idea of unionizing
has some phenomenal appeals to it, but that the kinks arise when
attempts are made to translate those ideals into viable, long-term
strategies for the greater good. Actually, there’s a sixth ‘catch’ to
the unionization argument, when attempts are made to apply it to the
arts, and quite possibly, the one which poses its most challenging
obstacle: within unions, it is standardization, not innovation, that
is most highly prized. A ‘union’ is, by definition, a “one-ness”; a
system, like the Army or Marines, which can only function properly if
an absolute and unwaivering code of behaviors and techniques is
followed. As enticing as the concept of enhancing personal standing
via collective reasoning might initially sound, I have trouble
envisioning it as a viable modus operandi for creative individuals. I
mean, how would you go about organizing goldsmiths in a commercial
forum, where Keum-Boo, Anticlastic Raising or Reticulation
technincians abide? Or, for that matter, what would happen to someone
who took it upon themselves to design an item or a process that was
entirely new and different? Can you picture what’d happen to a
Faberge’, Lalique, Munsteiner, Midgett or Seppa after a few years of
punching time clocks, or mindlessly cranking out one finding after
another in a “standardized” environment? Food for (scary) thought(s),
wouldn’t you agree?

Just my two cents,

Douglas Turet,
G.J.,Turet Design P.O. Box
242 Avon, MA 02322-0242 (508) 586-5690

Very interesting exposition, Doug.

I have stayed away from this discussion, but find myself drawn in at
last. What you say is thoughtful and well-reasoned-- but you just
know there’s a “but,” right? First, let me say that I have no
pre-set stance on this question, and no experience with unions.

It seems to me that your description of the inevitable collapse of a
business once its workers unionize is based on the assumption of
unrealistically high wage demands. Starting by doubling wages and
moving up from there would, indeed, be very destructive in today’s
business climate. Surely union leaders are not necessarily so blind
as to be unaware of that!

I also feel compelled to point out that there are creative people
already in unions, in fields like acting and music. Creativity isn’t
necessarily extinguished by organizing labor.

That said, I think the prospects for actually unionizing metalsmiths
would necessarily have to be limited to those jobs that have a fair
degree of standardization, which leaves most of us out of the
equation. Those who have neither bosses nor employees, like myself,
would probably be more harmed than benefitted by any such change.

I would love to see the analysis of this issue that would come from
your wife’s side of the family!