by Marty Jezer
August 30, 2003
I put up a kettle of water for coffee, sat down at my computer, and forgot about it until I started to smell something burning. Another kettle melt-down; its coating stuck to the burner. I went to town and bought a new kettle. It not only whistles when the water is boiling, but it shuts off automatically when it runs out of water. It was manufactured by an American company that I know from experience makes good products. When I got home I read the small print on the package. "Made in China."
I did an inventory of kitchenware, tools, appliances, clothing and electronics, including all my computer components. Everything old was made in the U.S.A. Everything recent was made elsewhere, most often in China. Hereís a suggestion for a Labor Day weekend activity: Make an inventory of your own recently purchased household items. How many of them were made in America?†
Itís not that the Chinese or other foreign workers own any of the companies that manufacture these products. Theyíre almost all American companies that have moved their manufacturing facilities to other countries; specifically, to where unions are illegal and workers can be easily exploited. Hear that hissing sound? Itís not the kettle whistling a warning that the water is boiling. Itís the sound of good-paying factory jobs leaving this country. We should all be steamed about this, organizing politically to change our economic priorities.
Trade issues are complicated. Protectionism is not a viable way to protect American jobs or bring any country prosperity. But so-called "free trade," negotiated by governments utterly beholden to corporate masters, wreaks havoc on working people, the environment, local communities and their traditions and culture. Yes, people in the third world need the economic opportunities that export markets provide. But whatís needed is an international system of fair trade, not free trade, a system under which labor and environmental leaders sit down with business and government officials and hash out trade agreements that give everyone in the world a fair shake in how they make a living.
The current corporate-dominated system is designed to drive the wages of working people down and the incomes of corporate executives up. According to a study by United For A Fair Economy and the Institute for Policy Studies, chief executives of companies that moved corporate offices abroad, ordered the largest layoffs, and had the shakiest pension plans were, on average, rewarded with the biggest pay hikes. For example, the median pay raise for CEOs in 2002 was 6 percent. The median pay raise for CEOs in the companies that announced the biggest job layoffs was 44 percent.
A 6 percent wage hike is still impressive for executives making hundreds of thousands if not millions a year. It takes diligent research to expose executive incomes. But when minimum-wage workers ask for a 50-cent pay raise, itís a public scandal. "Itís inflationary! We canít afford it!" management protests. Top executives in this country, like overpaid athletes and entertainers, are making out like bandits, a word that I here use as a description, not as a simile. Their gain is the publicís loss; their million dollar incomes come directly out of the wallets of us all.†
Working people in the United States are being screwed. Not only are we losing high-paying manufacturing jobs, but our benefits are second-rate when compared to those of white- and blue-collar working people in other industrialized democracies. Take vacations, for example. Typically, American workers get two weeks paid vacation a year, provided they have worked at a company for a specified time. The typical vacation time in countries of the European Union is four weeks per year, thatís the legal minimum. Think of that statistic next time flag-waving yahoos start chanting, "Weíre Number One!"
My short-term memory is pretty untrustworthy when it comes to boiling water, but itís pretty good when it comes to American history. I remember when young people who werenít on a college track could find secure, good-paying, unionized jobs in the manufacturing sector. Those days are gone.
Today the military is one of the few sectors that provide young people with upwardly mobile employment opportunities, with training, education, advancement, health care benefits, pensions, a sense of ťlan. As documented by The New York Times, in an article, "Military Mirrors a Working Class America" (March 30, 2003), and by Andrew Levinson in an article "Class and Warfare" (The American Prospect, September 2003), our military has become increasingly working-class, and proudly so, with college graduates a tiny-minority.
Itís the lack of economic opportunity elsewhere that encourages young people to join the military. Few expected or wanted to be part of an occupying army fighting an ugly and unnecessary war in the Iraqi desert, or any place else; in essence, fighting to advance a corporate-dominated imperial system that costs them economic opportunity in the private sector at home. The salient economic fact is that the U.S. military has become a public-sector job program for young Americans who see their career opportunities diminishing as American corporations move their manufacturing facilities to low-wage countries throughout the world.
We need strong unions to fight for good, secure jobs and for better-than-livable wages. But thatís only the beginning. Unions give working people a political voice to compete with the corporate sectorís money and muscle. Individual voices canít do it alone; political parties beholden to their corporate campaign contributors lack the will. We need a countervailing force to corporate power. The Labor Day holiday is as good a time as any to start talking about economic justice, worker rights, a fair shake for everyone and what Americans used to call, and used to vote for, a New Deal.
Marty Jezer's books include Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel and The Dark Ages: Life in the U.S. 1945-1960. He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Jezerís articles at: www.sover.net/%7Emjez/newspapercolumns/index.htm