Monday, April 28, 2008

NEOLIBERALISM IN THE UNION HALL

"At the union hall in Gary," writes today's Times, Hillary Clinton "grew so animated in describing the plight of old-line industrial workers that she described them in language from the oft-repeated poem, attributed to the German pastor Martin Niemoller, about the victims of Nazism. 'First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist,'" etc.

Clinton's version: "They came for the steel companies and nobody said anything. They came for the auto companies and nobody said anything. They came for the office companies, people who did white-collar service jobs, and no one said anything. And they came for the professional jobs that could be outsourced, and nobody said anything."

Good speechmaking. Props to Hillary's writers for coining some nice phrases. But my question is this. Who is the they? Let's start with steel. It's been on the decline in the U.S. since the late 1950s, its diaspora encouraged by federal trade policies that rewarded off-shore investment. Gary was already a shell of its former industrial self by the early 1960s. And the auto industry? Well its decentralization began apace in the supposedly prosperous postwar years. Detroit alone lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs, most in the auto industry and in auto-related production, between 1947 and 1963. Further encouraging the rusting of the Rustbelt: federal defense, highway construction, and tax policies that rewarded job creation in outlying suburbs, small towns, and increasingly in low-wage regions of the South and West. New Deal and post-New Deal growth politics played a key role. The process of disinvestment from the Rustbelt enjoyed bipartisan support.

That process accelerated in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, in part because of the rise of global competition, but also because of treaties, trade policies, and financialization that encouraged, indeed rewarded, disinvestment. Companies that had decamped for the non-union South now moved even further afield to the Maquiladora region of Mexico, the Caribbean, and increasingly East Asia. Free floating, unregulated international capital flooded into places like Malaysia and China, in search of cheap labor and freedom from environmental regulation.

All of these changes were part of a process that Republicans and Democrats alike presided over. Much of the offshoring of capital and business happened in the 1990s under the watch of none other than the Clinton administration.

Unions and community groups did speak out when they came for the steel and auto companies, but their voices were drowned out by the tidal wave of neoliberalism that remade the economies of America and the world, benefiting the few at the expense of the many. But who was silent? Who was actively complicit in the economic transformation that led to the rusting of Gary? I won't name names, but you know who. There's a lot of blame to spread around.