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How Fast Track Hurts American Families

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There are somewhat weird arguments liberals make about trade that allows people to easily justify the loss of millions of American jobs because of slight improvements in income for the Vietnamese and Bangladeshi workers who replace them. There are a couple of serious problems with these arguments. First, it is essentially pro-capitalist, reinforcing the idea of employers as “job creators” who ultimately benefit society, as opposed to the profit-seekers who are willing to undermine any nation’s working class for the next quarterly report. Second, it shows shockingly little sophisticated analysis over how this process actually affects their own nation. The rise of Citizens United and the Koch Brothers’ control over American politics is directly linked to the decline of working-class voices in those politics that happened when the industrial unions were crushed. If you like high levels of income inequality and plutocrat control over America, fast track is for you. Third, these arguments allow for a sort of consumer myopia over their own role in the supply chain. By saying that American employers are improving the lives of workers overseas, it means that we don’t really have to worry about the actual conditions of work in these factories–child labor, slave labor, sexual harassment, forced pregnancy tests, beating by supervisors, unsafe working conditions, low wages, buildings collapsing on workers. All of these things are terrible and unnecessary.

Finally, it also undermines a basic fact–that nations need to have an interest in creating good jobs for its own citizens. I’m no believer in old-school protectionism, but unless the nation is creating good jobs for working Americans–moving the emphasis in our job creation from the creative class and highly-educated to average Americans–income inequality will continue to grow, as will societal instability. This is where United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard comes in, telling stories about how fast track hurts his members and working Americans.

They should, for example, pay attention to Kori Sherwood. When she got a job two years ago as a millwright at U.S. Steel’s Minntac facility in the Minnesota Iron Range, it changed her life and that of her young daughter. But in March, U.S. Steel sent layoff notices to 680 of Minntac’s 1,500 workers, citing an international glut of steel. Prices are at a 12-year low as mills in China continue to produce and ship massive amounts of steel and sell it at below market prices made possible by improper government subsidies and support.

Under international trade law, countries can prop up industry with government subsidies when the products are sold internally. Beijing may give its steel industry no-interest loans and free electricity when the rebar or pipe or I-beams are sold for construction projects in China. But international trade law forbids such subsidies when the goods are sold internationally because government aid suppresses product prices in what is supposed to be a free market. Some countries, however, routinely flout the rules. Then American companies that don’t get no-interest government loans or free electricity or other subsidies can’t compete on price.

They shut down mills and lay off workers. Unions and manufacturers are forced to pay millions to petition for import duties on the subsidized foreign goods to level the playing field. To win such a case, industry must prove financial injury and workers must suffer layoffs and lost income.

Kori Sherwood got one of U.S. Steel’s layoff notices and lost her job at Minntac on May 26. China’s violation of international trade rules dashed Sherwood’s hopes and plans. “You finally think you get your life in order – buy a truck, buy a home, and it all falls apart,” she said.

Import-adoring lawmakers should talk to tire builders from Tuscaloosa and Gadsden Ala., Findlay, Ohio, and Salem, Va., who have watched with endless anxiety over the past decade as American manufacturers closed plants and cut production because Chinese producers dumped subsidized passenger and light truck tires into the U.S. market.

After the USW petitioned for relief, the U.S. imposed import duties on Chinese tires beginning in 2009 and imports declined significantly. American producers regained market share and invested in American factories. They recalled laid off workers and even hired new ones.

But the second the duties expired, Chinese producers resumed dumping. American companies once again cut production, reduced workers’ hours and furloughed staff. The USW petitioned for trade relief again a year ago, and the U.S. Department of Commerce imposed preliminary duties. Since then, U.S. tire companies have ramped up production and increased workers’ shifts.

In testimony earlier this month before the U.S. International Trade Commission seeking permanent duties, David Hayes, president of the USW local union at Goodyear’s tire plant in Gadsden, talked about how the waves of dumped foreign tires have denied his fellow 1,500 workers job stability as layoffs followed each import surge.

These are actually important issues that liberals need to take seriously. The Kori Sherwood’s of the world need good jobs if we want the United States to be a stable nation in the 21st century that treats its citizens with respect. Supporters of the Trans Pacific Partnership need to articulate what happens to Kori Sherwood. NAFTA supporters used to say that the creative economy would take care of these people. Of course those were delusional statements of true believers in the religion of free trade. Now supporters of the TPP aren’t even trying to answer that question, including President Obama.

If we are going to have these trade agreements, we need to have international rules that protect workers wherever the jobs are located. Out of Sight is my answer to free trade advocates who claim that Americans who want the American working class to have good jobs don’t care about the poor overseas. But I haven’t heard any reasonable articulation of what happens to Kori Sherwood from advocates of the Trans Pacific Partnership. Maybe she can get a job at McDonald’s or work a temp job that never becomes permanent.

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