World Is Flat-ism Meets the Flathead Valley

Sitting down for breakfast yesterday morning in Missoula, Montana, I happened upon this front page story in the local paper. In a very simple manner, the story cuts right through all of Washington's globalization happy talk and shows exactly how our "new economy" is rigged to screw regular folks.

The story details the tight labor market in the Flathead Valley (for those not from Montana - that's the area around Glacier National Park). That's supposed to be a good thing for workers, and the paper notes that "McDonalds now offers double digits for an hour's work, and fast-food health insurance is not unheard of...Burger-flipping signing bonuses are now a reality...Even Plum Creek Timber Co., a strong employer offering long-term benefits, has been forced to increase its starting wage by a full 20 percent to better compete with high-paying construction jobs." As one observer says, "When labor constrains wages go up. That's the standard theory."

This is how a full-employment labor market is supposed to help workers - wages rise to compete for a tight pool of workers. Except for one problem:

"There is another alternative in today's world. Instead of raising wages to meet the workforce, businesses can raise a workforce to meet the wages...At Whitefish Lake Lodge, general manager Scott Ringer has imported Asians onto his staff, as well as Brazilians and Eastern Europeans. Many of those same Eastern Europeans also have found work at Glacier Park Inc., the private company that operates hotels and other concessions in Glacier National Park. Some of the area's hotels and related businesses have even joined forces, hiring employment companies to bring a small army of foreign workers to handle the height of the tourism season. 'You contract with the companies and they provide the service,' Ringer said. 'Basically, they deliver employees to your doorstep.'...The Flathead Valley's hospitality industry also have been testing international waters in recent years, bringing in foreign workers to handle low-wage jobs."

In other words, employers are using immigration and temporary visa programs to short circuit the labor market. The rules of supply and demand that corporations tell us we must never mess with are only applicable when those rules help corporations - but when they begin helping ordinary workers, the supply (in this case, of labor) must be artificially rigged to keep wages down.

The Missoulian asked about this, and received the stock answer that every corporate shill from the White House to the local chamber of commerce gives: Americans don't want to do these jobs. Claimed one temp agency executive, "There just aren't enough workers to fill the jobs." Said another employer: "If local people were lined up looking for those jobs, that would be something else. But everyone's working." Yes, yes - no one wants the jobs, right? Wrong.

As the paper notes, it's "tough for those offering service-industry wages to attract quality employees" (emphasis added). In other words, it's not that workers are unwilling to do the jobs - it's that workers are unwilling to do the jobs at the awful wages being offered. That's called Economics 101, and even one employer in the story admits as much, saying they hire foreign workers because "We have had some labor issues in the past couple years." Translation: local workers have demanded better wages, and that is unacceptable. Apparently, even Economics 101 isn't allowed to be considered when it might mean economic benefits for someone other than corporate executives.

This fake lament about there not being any workers available is echoed by the highest leaders of the land. President Bush regurgitates it all the time. So does Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). You may recall he justified his support for an immigration bill by claiming that agriculture companies simply can't find Americans to do the jobs they need done. When told that people won't do those jobs because the companies pay such awful wages, McCain claimed that Americans wouldn't want to pick lettuce for $50 an hour - a line that got him yelled off the stage.

That's what the whole immigration and globalization debate is being driven by, folks - it has very little to do with World Is Flat visions of "spreading democracy." In the words of this year's Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, it has everything to do with creating a "free for all" for Big Money interests and their never-ending quest for cheap, exploitable labor.

This is evident in our immigration debate, and in our trade debate as well. Just weeks after an election where scores of candidates ran and won on their opposition to lobbyist-written trade deals, Congress went ahead and passed a free trade accord with Vietnam that has no basic labor, human rights or environmental protections. The Democratic lawmakers who provided the vote margin for the bill had the nerve to claim they supported the pact because supposedly it "will help American workers."

Yes, we are expected to believe that the deal was all about America selling products to an impoverished, oppressed communist nation like Vietnam. We're just expected to nod our heads and agree with these brazenly dishonest career politicians who want us to believe that all those poor peasants are somehow going to be buying all of our high-end goods, and thus give a boost to our export economy that outweighs the blow to our job base. We're not expected to look at the pages of Businessweek, which document what the deal - and all the other deals like it - are really all about: exporting American jobs. The magazine noted earlier this year that, for instance, Intel is opening up plants in Vietnam, and that the "big reason" so many companies are moving there is because of Vietnam's "rock-bottom wages." Today, just a few days after the pact passed, Businessweek has a story headlined "Vietnam's Growing Role in Outsourcing" - it's all about how American high-tech executives are salivating at the cheap pool of exploitable labor. All they needed was a trade deal that had no labor, human rights, wage, or environmental protections in order to exploit the labor for profit - and that's exactly what Congress delivered under the guise of "helping American workers."

None of this is meant to suggest that immigration or trade is bad. These policy areas aren't bad or good in a vacuum - it is the rules that surround them that determine their value.

Liberalized immigration laws without a significant raise in the minimum wage is not some pro-immigrant act of humane benevolence - it is a weapon to rig the labor market, a tool to keep American wages low, and an anti-immigrant effort to exploit desperate foreign workers. The opposite is also true: Liberalized immigration laws that are coupled with a serious increase in the minimum wage and /or employer health care mandates is a positive way to both impart some much-needed humanity into our immigration policy, but also prevent immigration from being used merely as a way to exploit workers. If the minimum wage was much higher in the Flathead Valley, for instance, employers may have found that, in fact, more American workers were lining up for many of those service-sector jobs there - all while the foreign workers brought in for seasonal work would actually be paid a far higher wage.

Similarly, liberalized trade without labor, human rights or environmental protections as strong as copyright/patent protections are just tools to give companies a way to lower their costs through job outsourcing, union busting, and ecological degradation. By contrast, liberalized trade with strong protections such as those written into a few of our agreements (Cambodia and Jordan, for instance) may actually be a way to lift up both foreign and domestic workers.

But, then, that's the problem. The Big Money interests that have performed a hostile takeover of our government aren't interested in places like the Flathead Valley that are far away from the Washington Beltway - and they especially aren't interested in lifting up workers. They are interested in crafting laws that allow them to take the low road and troll the world for the most desperate workers who will accept exploitation. And unfortunately, our bought-and-paid-for federal government is all too happy to help.<

Cross-posted at Sirotablog and DailyKos