Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ramamritham goes to the US

Guess which country is this ? The decision on where a company should locate a new factory is made by the unions and the government. The company, which thought it could decide for itself,  is rapped on the knuckles for presuming this right. Where could this be in this day and age - North Korea ? Zimbabwe ? Libya ? Alas, none of these. It is actually the US of A.

The company in question is Boeing. For long it has had factories in the Pacific NorthWest - in the states of Washington and Oregon. It now needs additional manufacturing capacity for making the Dreamliner - the new 787  series that is being launched worldwide.  It set up an additional factory in South Carolina. The unions representing the Washington and Oregon plant workers filed a complaint with the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB upheld the complaint - Boeing was wrong to open a factory in South Carolina !!

The case boggles the mind. Boeing did not shut down any factory or lay off any workers. On the contrary it actually increased its workers at the Northwest factories to run it to full capacity. But instead of building a new factory there, it built it in South Carolina. It could have very well built it in the Northwest. But its problem was that every three years or so the workers there were going on strike and this was severely impacting the company.  The unions complained, and the NLRB upheld this complaint, that "Boeing's actions were motivated by a desire to retailiate for past strikes and chill future strike activity" !

Underneath it all is the big fight between organised labour and business in America. The case of the autoworkers in Detroit is well known. The undercurrent is also the competition between "union shop" states and the "right to work" states. In some states in the US, company workers are forced to join the established unions and pay membership fees by law. Washington and Oregon fall in this category. In other states, workers cannot be forced by unions to become members. South Carolina falls in this group. No prizes for why Boeing, or for that matter, any company, wants to site factories in states like South Carolina.

This being America, Boeing is going to the courts. Lawyers on both sides are rubbing their hands in glee.

A larger trend in America (and more so in Europe) is the rapid expansion of the license raj. Governments and petty bureaucrats are increasingly coming in the way of business, in a manner reminiscent of Ramamritham of India. The Economist in two recent articles has actually used the term "license raj" - you can read them here and here and they make wonderful reading if you are interested in the antics of Ramamritham's ilk.

Ramamritham's counterpart in the UK is called Sir Humphrey Appleby. I now have to invent a name for his American cousin !!