November 07, 2016
From the Archives: U.S Facing A Future That Doesn't Include Blue-collar Workers, November 22, By William Raspberry, WaPO 1993
U.S Facing A Future That Doesn't Include Blue-collar Workers, November 22, By William Raspberry, WaPO 1993
Billy Bob Grahn at an entrance to the General Motors plant in Janesville, Wis., on Dec. 23, 2008, the day the factory closed.
WASHINGTON — At one level, the pitched battle over the North American Free Trade Agreement was about an issue it will hardly touch-at least not in the near term. That issue is the future of blue-collar workers.
Indeed, it may be because the agreement has so little to do with the U.S. working class that it became such a hot topic. Here is an idea born under President Bush, elevated to critical status by President Clinton, backed by business and Republicans-the major economic thought of the season-and it doesn't address the fears of the group that is the principal economic loser of the last 15 years. And by failing to address those fears, it exacerbates them.
Whether this is a reasonable response is a different question. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, with whom I talked earlier this week, thinks it isn't. He confirmed what already seemed clear to me: that, strictly on job-creation/job-loss terms, NAFTA is a plus. Ross Perot's prediction of a "giant sucking sound" of U.S. jobs heading south to Mexico seems baseless. Nothing in the agreement would make Mexico's cheap labor more attractive-or more accessible-to U.S. companies than it already is.
And to the extent that it knocks down the double-digit tariffs on U.S. goods sold across the border, it ought to mean more sales for U.S. products and, at least marginally, more jobs.
But it's not really about jobs. At least not in the sense that the beleaguered working class thinks about jobs. It may create jobs in the sense that every major economic advance, from cars to computers, has created jobs-in the aggregate and in the long term. But worried buggy-whip makers and typewriter repairmen think, of necessity, in the near term. And in the near term, economic change leaves people behind.
Worse: It's not just the disappearance of specific crafts and products that has blue-collar workers feeling increasingly vulnerable. What we are witnessing is the obsolescence of an entire class of worker: the industrious but modestly educated man or woman for whom a factory job meant economic security.
Reich understands the fears generated by this shift. "With or without NAFTA," he said, "if this society is to join the new global economy, we have to create pathways for all people to get good jobs. Otherwise people will try to preserve the past."
That past-more attractive as it recedes-is the factory. And neither NAFTA nor anything else now on the table seems a reasonable substitute for it.
What blue-collar workers fear most is not simply having to take a lesser-paying job. They fear becoming unnecessary, as whatever new jobs come on-stream go to people with skills they themselves have little hope of acquiring.
It has already happened in the central cities. The exodus of blue-collar jobs-whether to the suburbs or overseas-has been blamed for making young black men unnecessary and, by doing so, creating the discouraged and increasingly violent underclass. And none of this is even on the table.
"The dirty little secret buried inside the NAFTA debate," says Reich, "is class consciousness. Low-skill, low-wage workers don't think NAFTA will help them. I think it will. The suspicion is that NAFTA will help the elite.
"That's not hard for me to understand. The rate and duration of unemployment for blue-collar workers have gone up in the last 15 years, and their real wages have gone down. Blue-collar income has been sinking for 15 years. But if you have college-and especially if you have a graduate degree-your income has been increasing. That's true going back to the beginning of the Reagan years, except for the period from 1989 to 1992, when everybody dropped. The earnings gap between college-educated and non-college workers doubled in the '80s."
Reich, as fervent a supporter of NAFTA as the Clinton administration has, sees more clearly than most that NAFTA by itself can't reverse the trend toward the marginalization of the non-college trained.
"A lot of people haven't got it in their heads how important skills are," he said. "Kids don't see the relationship between school and work. That's got to change. That's why we are introducing our school-to-work concept. That's why, in early January, we will introduce a bill to change the unemployment system into a re-employment system. Employment isn't cyclical, the way it used to be. It's structural now. We've also got to do what we can to increase America's role in the global market, because that means more jobs."
And that, for Reich, means NAFTA. Nor, he insists, is it merely a matter of espousing the administration's view.
"Free markets AND human capital investment may be the only combination that can lead to enduring prosperity. The worst conceivable combination is protectionism and inadequate investment in education and training of the work force."
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