Dow 5,000 and the Strong Hand of Labor


On this day in economic and financial history...

Almost exactly 23 years to the day after the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) broke the 1,000-point barrier, it reached another major lifetime milestone. On Nov. 21, 1995, the Dow finally reached 5,000, a fourfold increase that gave index investors (such as existed in the days before index funds) a 7.3% annual growth rate from Dow 1,000 to Dow 5,000.

The Dow's real growth had come after 1982, when the Dow broke a bear market and finally put 1,000 in its rearview mirror permanently. Over this 13-year stretch, the Dow posted annualized growth of 13.2%.

"The surge in stock prices this year, which caught many experts by surprise, has resulted from a powerful mix of falling interest rates, strong corporate earnings and a tidal wave of cash into mutual funds and retirement plans," wrote The Washington Post to commemorate the occasion. The Post went on to say that "the stock market's dizzying rise this year has created more financial wealth for Americans than in any previous year. ... The total value of the shares traded on the three major U.S. stock exchanges increased by $1.5 trillion through Oct. 31."

This surge, which had generated a 37% 52-week gain in the Dow, led to some bold predictions. Edward Yardeni, chief economist at C.J. Lawrence, told reporters that he saw "10,000 by 2000," or a five-year double. Shockingly, he was a year late: The Dow would hit 10,000 in early 1999. Yardeni undermined his own bullishness by predicting a widespread profit decline, and a possible recession, the following year. Even when you're right, you can still be very wrong.

A different sort of milestone
Dow 5,000 attracted most of the attention, but one small company's IPO caught reporters' eyes as well. Boston Beer (NYS: SAM) , a decidedly non-dot-com stock, had recently gone public at $20 a share. It finished its first day at $28, which at the time represented a P/E of more than 100.

Despite its initially high price, Boston Beer's stock has increased nearly 300% over its IPO price. That's not a particularly great return, as a 10-year investment from 2003 to 2012 would have gained twice as much. Maybe it would have been better to wait.

To fly! The dream of man and flightless bird alike
The Wright Brothers may have achieved the first powered flight, but humans have taken to the air for centuries. On Nov. 21, 1783, humankind experienced its first free-flying manned flight when two men took to the skies over France in a balloon for a 10-mile, 23-minute journey.

Powered balloons, or airships, were early aviation success stories in the early 20th century until a certain German dirigible went down in flames and "Oh, the humanity" entered the cultural lexicon. Today, a small group of companies are trying once again to get airships off the ground. Lockheed Martin (NYS: LMT) is developing a cargo-carrying airship called SkyTug that could take to the skies before 2014. Other start-ups are developing airships of similar focus. Aviation's past might become its future -- although modern technology could probably fly these airships without a human pilot.

When labor beat capital
V-J Day, or Victory over Japan Day, came first. Then came V-C Day, a.k.a. Victory over the Corporations Day, for millions of American workers. On Nov. 21, 1945, a total of 320,000 workers at General Motors (NYS: GM) walked out on strike. This was the first devastating strike by American labor during a historic year of labor battles in the United States. Over the following year, 4.6 million workers would strike, and 116 million workdays were lost. But by the time it was over, millions of factory workers had key wage concessions that would elevate the blue-collar middle class in years to come.

The year of strikes marked another major turning point in the battle between labor and capital, particularly at GM, where its employees were (and still are, in large part) represented by the United Auto Workers.

A series of labor-friendly laws had been passed during FDR's presidency and later augmented by Truman, giving the UAW the strength to collectively bargain on behalf of its members. This began shortly after the end of the war, when UAW vice president Walter P. Reuther demanded a 30% wage increase (or $0.34 per hour for the average GM worker) that would not be paired with any increases in the price of GM cars. GM responded with a counter-offer of 10% wage increases that would be offset by auto price hikes, and the strike was on for Nov. 21.

The strike was initially ineffective, as a combination of wartime profit taxes and reduced demand (who buys a new car when they go to war?) actually benefited GM during the 1945 portion of the strike. But UAW leaders were determined, and the strike continued for 113 days. GM eventually agreed to a $0.19-per-hour wage increase, as well as paid vacations and other concessions.

Other American corporate bellwethers succumbed to strikes, but some handled the outcome with greater finesse. U.S. Steel (NYS: X) used its colossal position to extract price increases from the government in exchange for wage increases during strike negotiations, creating a de facto government wage subsidy.

The power of labor unions, many of which had ties to the manufacturing sector, was at an all-time high during the postwar years. Manufacturing employment made up more than 30% of American nonfarm employment for a decade after the GM strike and comprised at least a quarter of nonfarm employment until 1970. However, manufacturing employment peaked in 1979, and union power has been waning ever since. Today, manufacturing employment accounts for 9% of the American workforce. The UAW still exerts a fair bit control over the American auto industry, though: 13% of GM's shares are held by a UAW retiree trust fund, and a different UAW trust fund owns nearly half of Chrysler.

GM's ongoing tussles with the unions are just one aspect of its post-bankruptcy reconstruction. Can this venerable automaker survive and thrive in the modern world? Will the legacy of GM's labor concessions undermine its future to a fatal degree? These questions, and many more, are answered in the Fool's GM-specific premium research service. Our best industrials analysts have pored through the data on GM to give you the information you need to decide whether GM is a buy or not. Click here to subscribe today.

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Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles for more news and insights.The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin and Boston Beer. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of General Motors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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