Northern Valley Beacon

Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains----- E-Mail: Enter 'Beacon' in subject box. Send to:

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Meditation for Labor Day: A great place to run a sweat shop, but a lousy place to work

Our local newspaper loves to run reports of those "surveys" by business magazines that rank South Dakota as having the best business climate in the U.S. Of course, the newspaper never addresses the question of why, then, more thriving businesses do not come to the state.

What is meant by a "good business climate" are precisely those factors that make the state a lousy place to work:

The anti-labor bias is one that shares bipartisan support. People in both major parties and the minor parties, too, do not think workers should have equity in their jobs or any voice about the terms of their employment. If you go through the legislative record of the many anti-labor provisions in the South Dakota Codified Laws, you will see that Democrats supported the measures with fervor equal to the Republicans. People in South Dakota identify with farmers, and while farmers supply the labor on their own farms, they think of themselves as managers. And they are. Often when they do have to hire things done, whether through private arrangement or contracts with custom services, they do not have good experiences with some of the people who come to work on their farms. The attitude they develop is that you have to watch hired workers every moment and tell them every move to make. It becomes a mindset: hired labor can't be trusted.

This mindset translates into law, eventually. But it goes further. Once it gets into the town cafe-like cloakrooms of Pierre, it gets translated into a criminal code. If laborers can't be trusted, they should not have rights. Someone should keep them on perpetual parole, the thinking goes. And it would be stupid to give them any kind of voice about the work they are hired to do. Instead, they should be forever grateful that they are allowed to live and that there are people who give them opportunities to earn a dollar here and there for their own upkeep. South Dakota has the lowest average wage in the nation.

This attitude does not just apply to the drivers for custom harvesters who take out farmers' gateposts with their combines and grain trucks. It applies to anyone who fits the role of employee, including people in professions and middle management positions. People in occupations that require extensive education and professional training are represented more and more in collective bargaining. That statement may seem to run counter to the decline in union membership, but engineers, teachers, professors, medical personnel, and researchers are moving into collective bargaining as a way to establish fairness in wages and adequacy of working conditions. Wal-Mart has launched a vigorous campaign to discourage its employees from organizing into unions because many employees are looking at the way a major competitor, Costco, treats its employees and they want that kind of system for themselves.

With the decline in overall membership, unions are experiencing turmoil among themselves. Old-style union tactics do not work very well today. Unions that represent educated workers in a global market need think tanks and information analysts to formulate policy and workable solutions. For example, there are no hard statistics on how much of the decline in union membership results from the elimination of jobs. People get fired and end up taking jobs where there is no union representation. In looking at the airline industry alone, we find that job elimination accounts for tens of thousands of jobs and union members lost. As people take lesser jobs, they will also be looking for collective bargaining representation that is more effective and innovative than what presided over their lost jobs. They are also looking for a union watchdog role on their pension funds. People who conclude that the factional disputes within the union movement are signs that it is faltering do not see the issues. Workers are looking for more powerful and effective unions that can deal with the contemporary job marketplace.

All this provides a context for South Dakota's 19th century labor laws. Some professional unions that provide job-listing services caution applicants about South Dakota. They point out the perennial low pay, sub-standard benefits, and work rules that do not include basic employee rights.

At times the struggle to obtain some reasonable equity for workers in South Dakota seems hopeless. One target that employee groups have worked for is binding arbitration. When contract negotitions reach an impasse for public employees, South Dakota law permits management to impose a contract. This happens often. Binding arbitration would require that conflicts in contract proposals be resolved by a third party. Instead, the management side can impose a contract that rejects and ignores any employee benefits. A case in point comes from the county commissions of Bon Homme and Kingsbury Counties.

These counties declared impasses in their negotiations with their unions, locals of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipals Employees. The law governing unions of public employees states that organized employees have the right to bargain wages and working conditions. The contracts imposed contained "management rights" provisions that took away any employee rights to engage in collective bargaining--the entire purpose of a union--and gave the counties total and arbitrary control over employees in statements that sound like definitions of slavery. The matter ended up in the state Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court rejected the imposition of the contract, but not on matters of the injustice of county commisions attempting to revoke rights that are given to employees by law. When a side in a negotiation rejects a contract, it is required to supply a rationale for doing so. Usually, the rationales are inadequate, but fit the definition in a superficial way. In this case, the rationales were too absurd even for South Dakota. The court opinion stated, "These statements lack any legitimate or precise rationale for the provisions desired." The Court noted that the requirement that both parties "negotiate in good faith" was a fluid and ambiguous statement. It said the law did not justify its addressing the concept that a right given by that law could be taken away by the management side of the negotiations by imposing a contract.

This is just one provision in a set of labor laws that reduces employees to the status of serfs who have no rights and no opportunity for justice in their roles as employees. Binding arbitration provisions, on which Democrats have taken a beating over the decades, might be a step toward creating a better workplace for people who work, but the entire set of laws has so many loopholes that it is a piece of legal Swiss cheese.

Why does South Dakota have such defective laws? The dominant party in the legislature represents constituents who do not want workers to have any rights. They want to keep South Dakota an "at will" state, which means employers have the right to do anything they damned well please. Democrats, with their rural mindset about hired help, have been tepid, at best, in their efforts. Only a few legislators see the problems in the current labor laws.

What no one examines is the impact that the laws and the attitudes have on the South Dakota workforce. The reason there is such a massive brain drain in South Dakota is because there are no jobs commensurate with the intelligence and education of high school and college graduates. The reason there are no such jobs is because the state openly caters to businesses that do not offer good jobs. The state thinks it is an achievement when it lands a company that offers $12-an-hour jobs. That is less than $25,000 a year. That salary is not a reason to stay in or come to South Dakota. Simple.

Another factor is that people who do take high-skill jobs in South Dakota engage in a constant search for better pay and better status, and use their South Dakota jobs as launching platforms to better opportunities elsewhere.

This Labor Day, it might pay not to offer smarmy tributes to the workforce. It would be more realistic to list the many reasons South Dakota is a lousy place to work for most people who must work for living.

{Here is the full link for the South Dakota Suppreme Court opinion issued June 15.}

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