Publisher's Note — March 15, 2012, 11:25 am

Shredding the U.S. Labor Force Is a Bipartisan Project

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the Providence Journal on March 14, 2012.

Presidential candidates are once again crisscrossing the Midwest, making believe they’re dreadfully upset by the plight of the working class. The leveraged-buyout mogul, Mitt Romney, sheds crocodile tears in factories, while the Bible-flogging Rick Santorum offers Christian salvation to stanch the wounds of the underpaid and unemployed. To borrow a phrase from Santorum, it’s enough to make you throw up.

“I spent my life in the real economy,” blathers Romney. “I understand why jobs come and go.” Does he ever! Romney’s practice of loading companies with debt, firing their workers, and selling the disassembled assets to profit already wealthy people like himself has very much become the “real” economy of the United States.

Santorum, for his part, apparently believes that banning abortion and restoring prayer to public schools will cause new steel mills to open in Youngstown, Cleveland, and Chicago. In 1962–63, before the Supreme Court ban on prayer in public schools, I recited the Lord’s Prayer every day alongside my first-grade classmates at the Palm Beach Gardens Elementary School, and I don’t remember any of us getting credit for “job creation.”

As usual, the media reports these campaign stops—the earnestness of the politicians and the anger of the voters—with straight-faced credulity, as if the politicians meant what they said and the voters were able to take revenge on unresponsive candidates. And, as usual, the same reporters let Obama and the Democrats get away with their shallow pose of union solidarity and blue-collar sympathies.

Must we reprise the record yet again? In 2008, Obama and Hillary engaged in much the same pantomime during their Ohio primary contest, each claiming to care more than the other about industrial decline and shrinking factory employment. The only difference between then and now is that Obama’s campaign criticized the Clinton administration’s 1993 drive to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA is now believed to have caused at least 700,000 net job losses (“displaced,” in the jargon of the Economic Policy Institute), but the number is likely much higher (based on the Labor Department’s granting of aid eligibility to the estimated 2.5 million people it says have been harmed by trade agreements since 1994).

Eager to knock out Hillary Clinton, Obama’s campaign published a flyer headlined “Only Barack Obama fought NAFTA and other bad trade deals,” an exaggerated claim from a member of the Chicago political clique that did so much to pass NAFTA. Nevertheless, Obama pledged in a debate with Hillary Clinton to “renegotiate” NAFTA and “use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage” to get “labor and environmental standards that are enforced.”

At the same time, however, Obama dispatched his economic adviser Austan Goolsbee to reassure the Canadian government that he didn’t mean a word of his pledge. Once in office, he was true to his secret promise: The new president dropped his hammer and stopped talking about reforming NAFTA. Since then, the two parties have closed ranks in their anti-tariff orthodoxy (the only exception was George W. Bush’s temporary imposition of tariffs on imported steel in 2002), passing three more free-trade agreements certain to eliminate more jobs.

It’s worth recalling that for Bill Clinton to pass NAFTA he required the unstinting support of his putative enemy, then House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich, and in 2000 turned to Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert for crucial help in passing permanent normal trade relations with China, an even more damaging trade agreement for American workers.

Dissent on “free trade” (which in U.S. terms really means investment guarantees and labor price fixing) from such farsighted politicians as former Senator Fritz Hollings (D., S.C.) and former Senator Byron Dorgan (D. N.D.), both Democrats, usually goes unremarked in the press, but this is not entirely the fault of journalists and their editors. To have a debate you need debaters, and the most interested parties, the dwindling private-sector American unions, have mostly given up arguing.

Three years ago I wrote that Obama and his auto czar, the banker turned buyout expert Steven Rattner, were in the process of “liquidating the United Auto Workers even as they liquidate the American auto industry.” Happily, it appears I’ve been proven at least partially wrong, since General Motors has staged an impressive comeback, though how much of it was due to Japan’s disastrous earthquake remains to be seen. Still, as Mitt Romney correctly noted, the GM “restructuring” under government auspices wasn’t so different from what firms like Bain Capital do: layoffs, plant closures, wage reductions, and the elimination of dealerships. Incapable of organizing foreign-owned plants, the UAW has seen its membership continue to plummet, from about 460,000 members in April 2009 to about 376,000 today.

Meanwhile, NAFTA continues to create casualties in the unionized industrial sector. In October 2010, the Autolite sparkplug plant in Fostoria, Ohio, where once more than 1,000 mostly UAW members toiled, closed its last integrated production line and moved it to a new plant in Mexicali, Mexico, where 600 or so workers are paid about $1.80 an hour for a forty-eight-hour week. The last time I checked, there were eighty-six survivors making the ceramic part of the spark plug in Fostoria.

At the time of the move, Autolite was a subsidiary of Honeywell corporation, whose chief executive, David Cote, appeared next to Barack Obama, just after his inauguration as president, to promote business–government cooperation and passage of the stimulus bill. Of Cote and other CEOs present at the White House, Obama said, “These are people who make things, who hire people…. They are on the front lines in seeing the enormous problems in our economy right now… and I’m grateful that they’re here today to talk about why it’s so important that we act… in order to get the economy back on track.”

Nevertheless, Obama enjoys the unwavering support of unions, especially the UAW, which since the GM bailout has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party. So compromised is the UAW by Obama’s patronage that it even broke ranks with other major unions and endorsed the administration’s U.S.–South Korea free-trade agreement, another guaranteed job killer.

In this topsy-turvy world, it’s no wonder that American workers, unionized or otherwise, are angry, and reporters don’t know what questions to ask. I might have used a different word than “liquidation” to describe what’s being done to the UAW and the American working class. Maybe “emasculation” is more to the point.

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