Monday, June 20, 2011

Jobs in America and the False Promises of Free Trade

(The following post was written by Valerie Long Tweedie, a regular contributor to the Comments Section of this blog.)

I am anti-Free Trade. Whenever I share this sentiment, I am treated like some stupid, backwater simpleton who doesn’t understand economics. People condescendingly tell me that “protectionism will stall the economy” and “Americans enjoy many benefits of Free Trade.” It reminds me of the period after 9/11 when I questioned the wisdom of attacking Iraq, a country that hadn’t attacked us. People acted like I was completely out of touch with reality to question the wisdom of my government to drag us into a war. Wasn’t it obvious to anyone who had watched FOX or CNN that there were WMDs? Why would our government lie to get us into a war? But here I go again, questioning the wisdom of my government and the policy of Free Trade.
In truth, I am not a total isolationist. However, I believe that a government’s number one job is to watch out for the overall good of its citizenry and in our case that means maintaining the conditions for a strong Middle Class. We all know it to be true, American manufacturing businesses cannot pay their factory workers a liveable wage with benefits and still compete against imported goods made by underpaid factory workers in Third World countries. If we are to revive our manufacturing base in the U.S., we need to level the playing field - and that means tariffs and protectionism.
The bill of goods we were sold by the Republicans and the Clinton Administration was a two part scheme to get the American people to go along with Free Trade.  Part One:  If we ship off our low skilled manufacturing jobs to third world countries, displaced American factory workers will be retrained to do highly-skilled, higher-paying jobs. The problem was not all the blue collar workers were intellectually inclined toward highly skilled technological work and were unable to make the leap. Even those who could make the leap and re-skilled, found that there weren’t enough of those promised higher paying jobs. The result is we now have a large number of factory and semi-skilled workers in our country who don’t have jobs that pay a liveable wage and provide reasonable benefits.  Part Two:  All those people working in the newly off-shored, Third World factories will create a huge market and demand for the more expensive, high tech American made goods. Sounds good in theory but we underestimated (and were kept in the dark about) the obscene amount of corporate greed involved. As it turns out, Third World factory workers are heavily exploited and paid a paltry wage for their work. They barely make enough money to meet their basic needs and certainly not enough money to buy goods made in America.  In both cases, we were conned into believing that Free Trade would be a win-win for the workers on both shores when in reality it has pretty much been a lose-lose.
Now I have nothing against Third World factory workers. If they were paid a decent wage and quality products were made under sustainable environmental conditions, I wouldn’t be barking up this particular tree. I have no problems with importing Western European or Japanese goods, for example, which are high quality products, made to last, and built under decent working and environmental conditions. I don’t deny the chance for third world countries to industrialise - but let’s be honest here, that is not what is really driving this issue. Corporations off-shoring their production are treating vulnerable, desperate, human beings like expendable beasts of burden; they have no rights, no benefits,  no protection against injury or illness and they are grossly underpaid.
It should be evident to everyone by now that the big winners in Free Trade are the corporations - especially the multi-national ones. They pay low to no taxes and are allowed to bring all their goods into our markets with minimal costs – disregarding both the human and environmental destruction they leave in their wake.  Most importantly, and more dangerous to our way of life, is the fact that these same corporations use their ill-gotten profits to lobby (bribe) our elected officials through (often anonymous) campaign donations and force through (or slip through undetected) legislation that makes their dirty dealings legal. As long as Free Trade goes on as it is, these companies will only grow richer, more powerful and more destructive.
Sadly, the one group that could have put the brakes on this descent into plutocratic rule was Organised Labour. Their demands on politicians in exchange for their block of voters - the right to organise and hold politicians accountable to those who elected them, a decent retirement, a fair wage for an eight hour day’s work, health care, safe working conditions - benefitted all of us. As those human rights are being eroded in our country and the corporations get stronger and stronger as a result of Free Trade, organised labour has been transformed from a lion into a mouse and the Middle Class has lost its champion.
I read a lot of articles and comments proposing that new technologies are the answer to our economic woes. President Obama campaigned on green jobs back in the days when he was inspiring a nation. But green technology will require A LOT of government investment for R &D as well as incentives to make products like solar panels affordable to average citizens.  I am ALL for it! We should have been on the green energy bandwagon in the seventies when Jimmy Carter first proposed it! But I worry that even if those green energy companies get the governmental support they need to be up and going, will their CEO’s find it cheaper to move their factories overseas?  Will they use the excuse of having to compete with Chinese green energy products as a reason for doing so? Will green jobs be yet another casualty of Free Trade?
Admittedly, the ramifications of import taxes are big – but I suggest not as bad as we are led to believe. If we put a tariff on foreign made goods, our goods will be taxed in return - no doubt about it.  But America is the world’s biggest consumer so we would be in the position of being able to buy our own products and sustain our markets. As citizens we would have to be willing to pay more for the products we buy – and that is a hard pill for a lot of people to swallow – but I argue that the secure economy engendered by strong employment would be worth it.
As a nation, we have to stop blindly accepting the belief, promoted by those who profit most from it, that factory jobs are gone forever from our shores. We need these jobs in order to have a strong Middle Class and a stable economy - and must find a way to bring them back.
We’ve tried Free Trade for almost twenty years and like deregulation and trickle-down economics, it doesn’t work – at least for most of us. When we discuss the terrible job situation in the U.S. and the decline of the Middle Class are we ignoring the elephant in the room? Is it time to examine another option?
This particular entry only addresses the consequences of Free Trade as it applies to the blue collar jobs issue in the U.S. There are huge environmental ramifications and social justice issues concerning the exploitation of indigenous people and poor citizens of Third World countries.  We are also starting to see the off-shoring of white collar jobs. I am not minimizing these grave consequences of Free Trade. They deserve specific attention and will be addressed in another entry.

-- Valerie Long Tweedie


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this intellectually honest, factual piece. Free trade, as championed by both Democrats and Republicans, has for the most part been a boon only to those who were ready and able to exploit its constituent labor. (If that sounds Marxist, so be it.) It's failed trickle down theory on a global scale.

Jay - Ottawa said...

Thank you, Valerie. The land should be reverberating with such talk, and solutions being essayed everywhere.

The drift away from respect for American labor as distilled in labor unions has been paralleled by a generalized denigration of manual labor itself. The other side of that dinged and dirty coin is the attraction of keyboards for hands that once shaped products of hard physical value.

Valerie, you allude to one of Bill Clinton’s counterarguments against objections to NAFTA, to wit, that North American blue-collar workers made idle by shuttered factories at home could always “train up” to those near antiseptic and more cerebral tech jobs, most likely involving lots of sitzfleisch before computer screens. Future talk so often sends us reeling backwards. You go on to describe how NAFTA and other trade arrangements under the umbrella term of globalization really turned out. Corporate profits for the few are way up, and the unemployment rate is also up and holding steady at double the official rate put out by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many people dismissed from the old production lines were highly skilled in making steel, crafting tools and making parts for products they also assembled. Such industrial manual work, when intelligently organized – that is, not exploitative, was dignified and challenging and inherently worthy of the muscles, brains and courage of men and women who made things.

Sitting at a desk eight to twelve hours a day is not one millimeter higher in status over manual work. Check the morale level in cubicles. Keyboarding is rarely cerebral. We need a new term for the millions who sit before flickering screens, making nothing, but tracking numbers for bean counters, or outfoxing others by out-clicking their counterparts in the firm across the street, or churning client accounts to skim off artificial profits, which are not taxed. They are not manual workers. They are not cerebral workers. How about ass workers, since so much of their time is spent in chairs and their product mostly waste?

What will happen to the millions of unemployed – once highly skilled in their trades, now becoming low skilled, soon to be utterly unskilled for lack of use? Are we on the threshold of seeing hobo camps again, ruddy workers roaming the land in bands, an unstable proletariat in the cities ripe for new Marxists to organize their discontent and then for dictators to gun them down? And we presume to write stories in the MSM about the explosive unrest in China if and when their production lines slow down? In some way or other, a large mass of the unemployed, whom elected officials and the moguls of commerce ignore, cannot serve as a boon to any democracy or dictatorship. The final consequences from the con of Free Trade have yet to come home to roost.

I am anti-Free Trade.

Anne Lavoie said...

I don't think the wealthy cabal who run this country care. I believe the plan is for us riffraff to emigrate to Mexico or somewhere else, leaving America for the monied elite. They can't wait to get rid of us leeches on the system.

I already know of many Americans who have moved to Mexico because it is far more affordable, including the health care plan they buy into for a pittance.

Speaking of health care, if the Supreme Court upholds mandatory private health insurance, there will be nothing will stop mandatory annuity plans to replace Social Security.

Anyway, nicely written piece, Valerie.

Kat said...

Excellent post.
The whole job (re) training thing as espoused by Clinton and other New Democrats always has me seething. There are many low paying service jobs that cannot be outsourced. How about instead of asking these individuals to "reinvent" themselves we simply pay them more? Most of these jobs are far more necessary than many of these "highly skilled" jobs.
And, developing nations are not going to catapult themselves into the ranks of the developed world with these crappy manufacturing jobs: not when they're missing important parts of the equation such as organized labor and yes, protectionism. Would Japan's auto industry be anywhere without protectionist policies? How about the US?
Still, I have to wonder, absent real class consciousness in the US, did the labor movement sow its own seeds of destruction? Seems to me, that once people got comfortable they began to identify with the upper classes more than those at the bottom.

Janet Camp said...

Well done Ms. Tweedie!

I have only this response. I would embed this, but I don't think you can do that in comments. Russ Feingold can be our voice, even if not our candidate. I encourage you to listen and then decide if you can support Progressives United. I think this ties in nicely with your essay, Ms. Tweedie. Thank you for your contribution and thanks to Karen for offering to share her space.

Here's the link:

It really gets going about three minutes into the talk. Thanks to Reality Chex for putting me on to this site. Al Franken spoke as well, very movingly about good progressives like Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and reminded the audience of a lovely quote from the late (and much missed) Paul Wellstone:

"We all do better....when we all do better" - Good bumper sticker material, no?

VLT said...

My friend just sent me an article in Mother Jones by Mark Matcho. The title of the piece is "Overworked America, 12 Charts That Will Make Your Blood Boil." It is in keeping with this thread and I think all of you would find it informative reading.

Very much agreed, Janet, that Russ Feingold is a great man - one of the few politicians out there who is genuinely devoted to public service and highly capable. Thank you for the link. "We all do better . . . when we all do better." I would certainly stick it on the bumper if my car!

And thanks everyone for your support on my first foray into this kind of - what is it called? - blog posting? I was expecting a big backlash but feel it is an important enough issue that I am willing to take some heat for my opinion.

Kate Madison said...

Thank you, Valerie! Excellent post! I think the free-market sucks and always have. How did we ever put the "free" into free trade? It is anything but!

Russ Feingold is THE MAN!

Janet Camp said...

I subscribe to MJ and have already read the article. Another great companion piece to your post.

I hope you've all given a few dollars to Progressives United so it can grown into a truly effective force for real change. Russ has declined to challenge the President in 2012, but there's still 2016. Most people here in WI will never forget that he was the lone voice against the Patriot Act and probably the only Senator who actually read it. This one vote delivered bipartisan votes to him until the 2010 elections, which were, of course, bought by the Koch's. Unfortunately that is not an over-the-top statement.

Anonymous said...

Am I my brothers(G.N.) keeper? Or how can you believe in being "Your Brothers Keeper" and not support Free Trade?

This is in thoughtful response to a statement by Kate Madison in a prior post on a different site and is solely my own opinion.

The question is are we in fact anyone else's keeper?
Is Society anyone's keeper?
Should ether of us be?
If we should be than to what degree?
Who should decide and who should pay for it?

The faith based admonition to be your "brothers keeper" is personal between those of us that believe in something and that in which we believe. In this country it is not a place the government is mandated to go nor should it be.

Our Western Civilization is currently  built on the premise that from a secular Humanist view point We collectively are each other's keeper's. There are and have been other civilizations with very different views on this mater.

The success of Western Civilization (such as it has been) has given rise to other civilizations and cultures adopting our views on  societies' responsibility to it's members. Our views are very different from the ones that they formerly held.

India currently the world's largest Democracy has been in transition from a prior civilization where not only were there tribes but classes within the tribes. Most of those tribes and classes felt that they owed nothing to and had no responsibility for anyone not related to them. The ones that did believe differently were universally persecuted. Over the last hundred years or so India has transitioned to a more Western system of social responsibility. It is still a work in progress  after more than a hundred years

Japan after the shock of contact with the West in the late 1800s quickly adopted a number of Western values including beginning in the 1920s  Western ideas of social responsibility as they apply only to Japanese citizens,  as did China after the end of the cultural revolution and total central state planning. The Human Condition in both has improved astronomically in spite of several wars and revolutions.

Today about two thirds of the worlds population lives where there is a belief in society's responsibility to it's members. In fact the practice is something less than the talk and Tribalism is still a large problem in much of the world.

One of the unintended results of the internationalization of commerce (read Free Trade) since WW2 is more progress in the improvement in the Human Condition world wide than in all prior human history. This increase has been in the face of a very large increase in population which also proves that conditions have improved. Yes, not all areas have improved equally and wealth inequities have increased. All of which is deplorable until you realize that some having more and some having less is vastly superior to everyone having nothing and sharing the nothing equally.

The point of this is that Capitalism and free trade have done more by accident to improve the Human Condition  than all of the charity, aid, and Socialist rhetoric combined. Has that improvement come at a cost here at home to our workers? Of course it has. Does that need to be addressed? Yes, without question.  

My parting thoughts on Free Trade as the Instermantality of "Am I my brothers Keeper" is a quote from Marx "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" and one from myself, "It's better to be exploited and get 3 meals a day for my family than to be left free to starve".

None of this  addresses the serious problems here at home in dealing with the consequences of Free Trade. There is enough blame to go around!


VLT said...


You make an excellent point about the skilled labour that was involved in many aspects of factory work - now completely lost to the unemployment lines. Thank you for bringing up that very relevant point.


I think we DO owe our fellow man something. We are blessed/lucky to have a standard of living and safety far above that of most people in the world. Should we just sit back and enjoy what we have without a concern for injustice, poverty, disease, violence? I don't think so. But I can see that this issue more than any other defines the political philosophies of the left and the right as they stand today.

However, I don't think that is what Free Trade is about; although advocates like to suggest that there is an inherent altruistic benefit of Free Trade to the Third World countries. Neither one of us will find any evidence to suggest that Free Trade has benefited poor countries more that foreign aid and genuine altruism because the numbers just aren’t out there. I posit, there are small gains for the people who work in some of these Third World factories, but most of the profits and advantages go to a few people at the top of the food chain, just as they do in our country.

The question I am raising is do the pros of Free Trade outweigh the cons? I believe there are far more cons than pros. But DO raise questions. The debate will bring all the best arguments on both sides of this issue.

I would ask that you let the benefits to Third World factory workers rest for now. I will write another post in a month or so on this particular side of Free Trade and we can debate it then.

But I invite any other arguments in favour of Free Trade. As Kat says, it is wonderful that Karen has provided us with a venue to discuss these important issues in a civil and mutually respectful manner.


Anonymous said...

Ok, write the article and I will have an opinion, but you should look at the numbers too, especially look at China, Korea, Vietnam, and India. I did prior to writing this reply, which as I stated was in response to a comment by Kate over on Marie's site about being "your brothers keeper". However it seemed appropriate to post it here as a counterpoint to your Essay. I think at the end of the day the third world worker should be consulted. I have been there and they see things very differently than do we.
I am not sure that you can discuss free trade without Discussing the social and financial impact to the domestic and foreign workers as an integral part of the



VLT said...


What a disappointing response! After reading some of your more thoughtful and well-researched comments on RealityChex I expected more than just vague references to the better life for Third World factory workers as propagandized by Free Trade advocates. No numbers, no examples and truly no response to my question, do the pros outweigh the cons? If you did your research prior to writing your response, I am disappointed you didn't cite
some of it.


Anonymous said...


"I would ask that you let the benefits to Third World factory workers rest for now. I will write another post in a month or so on this particular side of Free Trade and we can debate it then"

As I said I don't think the domestic and forign parts of the discussion are separate or can be separated. I am willing to wait until you post your theory on
"free trade" and the third world worker. Then I will post the numbers supporting
my view. I don't ever expect to change minds but I think seeing both sides of an issue helps everyone myself included.