Funny You Should Ask…Kingman offers look at place caught between unions, non-unions

A recent early-evening stroll through a grocery store seemed surreal because of the quiet.

Though I had picked an odd place to relax, the soothing, descending rainy-day notes of a piano came to mind.

It was just after the shopping rush hour on a day other than Friday, which explained the quiet as I watched the part-time teenage night crew that had come on after the adult help for the most part had left, more than likely union help.

The mental tickling of the ivories became a maudlin backdrop to my thoughts about an impending strike of Safeway stores throughout Arizona.

The particular issues of health insurance, minimum hours worked and two-tiered wages reflect trends of reduced employer-paid insurance and increasingly non-union help at discount stores that are trying to undercut the grocery chains' prices.

Safeway's business argument is unimpeachable, that because of a profit margin in the low single digits it has to cut labor costs and keep prices low enough to keep people out of the grocery sections of Wal-Mart superstores, one which might be built in Kingman.

The time-honored subtext of union negotiation weighs in Safeway's favor: The jobs the union has now are better than none at all.

Equally unimpeachable is the verdict by economists and other pundits that manufacturing jobs are not being created, only displaced by fewer jobs in more efficient processes or by jobs going overseas where wages are less and regulations fewer, unenforceable or nonexistent.

Of the service including grocery jobs that remain, for the most part they never paid as much as those in manufacturing.

But those are the jobs flourishing in an economy more dependent on buying rather than making things, on consumers' credit and the intellectual capital rather than the physical capital a plant that instead can be built and sold to a foreign government and then leased back to a company for the tax break.

And while the infrastructure of the Internet still expands off itself, creating jobs with the requisite computer and engineering training, just where things actually will be made 50 years from now, whether by colonists on the moon or those under ocean floors, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the tides or wealth continue to flow amid the jetties of political arguments about economic balkanization or, in hushed tones, class warfare.

How else, after all, could greater Phoenix trumpet its booming housing market in an economy that its business leaders claim has been tepid at best because of the state's repressive tax code.

Kingman, on the other hand, remains a bridge between tectonic plates of the shifting economic paradigm.

We have skilled and semiskilled manufacturing jobs an industrial park, the ever-burgeoning service sector along Stockton Hill Road, government, a community college and university extension to employ our resident talent of academia, and home-building fueled by retirees with assets, on whom our health-care sector depends to a great extent.

No community like no man is an island, but who wouldn't take umbrage at a labor union with roots outside the Northwest Plateau, and tentacles perhaps reaching to California, trying to influence whether Wal-Mart builds a superstore?

Maybe the union critics are right, but then, in an economically competitive society, unions are doing what unions are supposed to do, getting the best deal for their members as Safeway and Wal-Mart do for their stockholders.

Competition implies bargaining for advantage, though I wonder whether executives see it as more a nuisance rather than the art of businesses, even if the bargaining is with a supplier rather than a union.

We Americans might be much more competitive than we could ever have imagined.

Our competitiveness for economic survival doesn't sit well with the idyllic sense of community, loving and doing business with thy neighbors.

During my 21 months in Kingman, I've not once encountered an expression or tone remotely discourteous by anyone working at either of a certain grocery chain's stores, a far cry, say, from a store in suburban Greensboro, N.C., with a workforce populated by petulant, vain teens from upper middle class neighborhoods.

I raised an eyebrow when I learned that the Kingman stores had union help.

Then again I had long and perhaps idyllically decided the help was effortlessly polite because this was Kingman.

No, the closest but still remote sign of discourteousness really was an effort not to be so, by a middle-aged woman near the end of her work day at the deli counter, helping one customer but straining over her shoulder to say she would be right with another.