The Lure Of Cheap Labor

Like John Edwards I am the son of a textile worker ( the similarity ends there). Edward’s website delineates a ringing endorsement of labor:
“Strengthen Labor Laws. Union workers earn 28 percent more than non-union workers, on average. Federal law promises workers the right to choose a union, but the law is poorly enforced, full of loopholes, and routinely violated by employers. Edwards supports the Employee Free Choice Act to give workers an effective, democratic choice over whether to form a union.”

I do not doubt his sincerity but it is ironic that a son of the South is a proponent of the Employee Free Choice Act. It takes me back to my home town of Utica, New York. By the late Nineteenth Century, Utica had become the home of the textile industry of the United States. The textile industry has always had an appetite for cheap labor. It was that appetite that brought a fifteen year old youth from Italy to Utica to work at poverty wages in the textile mills. Organized labor eventually brought a living wage and that same youth was able to raise a family. While in my teens that same industry provided employment for my mother so that my college education might become a reality.

By mid Twentieth Century, virtually all of the textile mills in Utica closed. The industry did not migrate to China, it migrated to the American South. In the South mill owners often used brutal tactics to break textile strikes, and organized labor was never able to gain much of a foothold . Thus Cheap Labor. Enter the era of John Edwards’ father and the appetite for cheap labor reared its ugly head again and the jobs that once filled the southern mills started to be shipped outside the United States.

The quest for cheap labor of course does not stop with the textile industry. Back in the 60’s I found myself as an active participant in the move of GE’s transistor manufacturing to Ireland. The result, a shutdown of transistor manufacturing operations in Syracuse and Buffalo. There will always be a carrot out there luring manufacturers to move their operations to an environment of cheap labor. John Edwards’ resolve to “give workers an effective, democratic choice over whether to form a union” is laudatory but we need specifics from Edwards and others on how to curb the loss of our manufacturing base. A service economy will not cut it! Still as we lament the loss of jobs we also show a reluctance to subsidize domestic manufacturing. Its a vicious circle ! Unless the flow of manufacturing offshore is checked we will find ourselves with a lower standard of living.

P.S. A full page ad sponsored by the I.U.E appeared in The Plain Dealer this morning . The ad referred to General Electric's "green" stance on the use of fluorecent bulbs as opposed to incandescent bulbs but pointed out that the flourecent bulbs are manufactured in China. The ad contained futile words urging the company to manufacture the bulbs in domestic facilities. This will not happen. The consumer will not pay the increased cost - cheap labor is required to make the bulbs affordable. The lighting business that Thomas Edison created is gradually leaving our shores. China will light the way.

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