Protect Workers' Rights
By Bruce Raynor
The Washington Post
Monday 01 September 2003
This summer Pillowtex Corp., successor to the century-old firm Fieldcrest Cannon, the largest unionized textile company in the country, closed its 16 textile plants and let go almost 6,500 employees in 10 states. In North Carolina, where the largest plants were located, it was the single biggest layoff in state history.
Pillowtex is only one of hundreds of textile mills that have closed in the past several years. For me, the Pillowtex shutdown was especially painful because for 20 years I was involved in efforts to organize a union there. In 1999 the workers finally succeeded. These workers overcame illegal threats, harassment and attempts to racially divide the workers. But the hardest-working, most dedicated workers in the world could not overcome a government policy that believes open markets and expanded trade, whatever the cost, are always justified. Problem is, the costs keep rising and the benefits never seem to trickle down.
The workers are now desperate. They received no severance payments. Their health insurance is gone. Mortgages, car payments and taxes aren't being paid. Kannapolis, N.C., where Pillowtex is located, has always been a textile town. There are no other jobs available. And while the union is still trying to find a buyer for the company, the local government's response for economic development is to buy an ad in USA Today or the Wall Street Journal asking Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey or Warren Buffett to consider moving some of their business operations to Kannapolis.
What happened to Pillowtex workers is illustrative of destructive trends that threaten American prosperity and, indeed, the global economy.
Every manufacturing industry in the United States -- apparel, textiles, metals, paper, electronics -- has lost jobs in the past year. Over the past 36 months manufacturing employment has declined by 2.7 million. This is the longest decline since the Great Depression. The job crisis is not only in manufacturing. Since the economic recovery began, more than a million jobs have disappeared. Apparently the economy is doing well. Only workers are suffering.
The usual response of policymakers to manufacturing workers who have lost their jobs is to preach the virtues of education. Workers are told that if they would only acquire new skills, they would qualify for white-collar service jobs that are safe from the economic forces that have shifted millions of factory jobs to foreign countries. Perhaps that was once true.
Today white-collar jobs -- telemarketing, accounting, claims adjusting, home loan processing, architectural practices, radiographers and even some state and local government jobs -- are going offshore. In a survey of the world's 100 largest financial services firms, Deloitte Research found that these companies expect to shift $356 billion worth of operations and about 2 million jobs to low-wage countries over the next five years. These developments appear already to be affecting wages in some sectors. According to Sharon Marsh Roberts of the Independent Computer Consultants Association, outsourcing has forced down hourly wage rates by 10 percent to 40 percent for many U.S. computer consultants.
These trends also affect workers in developing countries. For example, since January 2000, 520 manufacturing plants have closed in Mexico, most of them moving to China. And in 2005, when all apparel and textile quotas are to be lifted, developing countries around the globe will be faced with a massive loss of jobs as the industry moves into China. For example, a United Nations study predicts that Bangladesh will lose 1 million apparel jobs when quotas are abolished. Many other countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe, where the apparel industry is the largest employer, will also suffer huge job losses when quotas are lifted.
As low as wages are in many developing countries, they can't compete with the pennies an hour paid in China. China scholar Anita Chan describes how different regions in China seek to maintain their attractiveness to foreign capital by lowering minimum wages and not enforcing labor regulations and health and safety laws. According to Chan, "though employment in the low-wage industries in China may be expanding, the wages of the workers in these industries are not rising, and for many of them have been falling." The benefits of globalization, Chan warns, "will not trickle down to those who make products."
So it turns out that workers in Kannapolis, N.C., Silicon Valley, Calif.; Juarez, Mexico, and Guangdong, China, have much in common. It is becoming increasingly clear that when wages and conditions of work are undercut in one part of the globe they will eventually be cut in others as well.
The downward spiral of lower wages and worsening working conditions is fueling popular skepticism over globalization. A prosperous economy requires that workers be able to buy the products that they produce. That means we need rules for the global economy that protect workers' rights -- and not just in China -- we also need then in the United States.
The writer is president of UNITE, a union of 250,000 apparel, textile, laundry and distribution workers.
Jump to TO Features for Tuesday 02 September 2003