In The News
Even in loss, Feingold made trade politically sexy
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Revised November 4, original posted October 15, 2010
A few months ago, US trade policy was hardly regarded as a game-changing rallying cry in the national mid-term election. But it became a hot issue that almost pullled off the re-election of Sen. Russ Feingold, a legendary maverick who went down to defeat to the consternation of much of the nation Nov. 2.
Hopes rose for Feingold late in October when new polls showed the majority of the public, from Republicans to Tea Party to Democrats to Independents, opposed the free trade pacts. Only 18% support these deals. While most US industrial companies now have outsourcing strategies, few have US job retention strategies – and the public is noticing. In 2004 the US doubled the number of offshore jobs in three years to some 400,000 jobs.
The attitude from big business? Suck it up. But outsourced trade and departing jobs have now become indefensible -- even in the face of Democratic losses in the midterm election. Business people who try instead to blame a 33 year old law about home loans are justifiably laughed out of court.
The star of this new awareness was Feingold. He opposed his own party back into the 1990s -- even before some unions warned that free trade agreements such as NAFTA would bleed work away from the Wisconsin farmer and the Wisconsin industrial worker alike. They were right about that, but he was right first and louder.
He made this unfettered free trade policy and his long fight for harder US trade standards a central issue in his campaign for re-election and his debates against Ron Johnson, a manufacturer who not only blamed that ancient 1977 law -- Johnson actually praised China for its business environment, without mentioning that such things are clearly more predictable in a centralized Communist dictatorship. Most voters had stopped listening to the debates, alas, and such siliness did not stop Johnson from winning election.
Still, such self-serving ideas forced his handlers to cringe and for the challenger to slink away from Feingold’s pointed criticism that the last thing Wisconsin needs in the Senate is a millionaire manufacturer who thrives on foreign trade more than on growing American jobs. Slinking worked in this election season.
The greed and perils behind too much of this outsourcing have such political resonance that it did change poll nmbers -- sometimes too late and sometimes just enough, as proved true in Colorado and Washington State. So the concept worked if not fully for Feingold but for Democratic candidates throughout the country who have picked up the theme, galvanized in part by AFL-CIO political energy around the issue.
Ads on the issue of unfair trade and lost jobs have flooded these races and put Republicans and their secretive ad networks on the defensive.
Alerts and news stories from fair trade activists that tended to be ignored in citizen’s email boxes or by media news-heads are drawing air time and in-depth coverage. Suddenly, despite third-party ad rules that prevent detailed disclosure, the issue of illegal foreign money has danced into the domestic political arena, since 90% of this secretive money backs politicians supporting outsourcing.
The US Chamber of Commerce, a leading third-party advertiser, first said it got as little as $100,000 in fees from foreign companies, but investigators quickly forced that estimate upward by tenfold within a week, leading the public to doubt the honesty of the trade organization. (What does segregating such cash mean? Left pocket rather than right?)
Feingold’s bold pronouncements were not just being echoed in other races (Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois). It helped a new search engine on the Internet become a hot property, even though never intended primarily as an election tool.
Working America and the national AFL-CIO created JobTracker. It’s a simple page at www.workingamerica.org/jobtracker Put in a ZIP code and find the nearby companies that have outsourced jobs. You may be amazed – pinpoint colored maps nail not just outsourcers, but also companies violating safety and labor laws and contracting regulations. It’s all drawn from reliable databases and is accompanied by a report on OutSourced Jobs with anecdotes and facts. The report is so compelling that we’ve posted it in the Take Action section of our website, www.milwaukeelabor.org.
The creators of JobTracker are no simpletons, so they have issued cautions. Trade is admittedly a complicated issue, so while violations are one thing, the number of jobs in other countries from American companies is not necessarily a direct loss to the American worker. But JobTracker, using trade adjustment and other databases, help you nail the millions of jobs that are.
Times have also changed, and the old businessman’s analogy that all the loss was from technological advances and global factors no longer flies. Back in the 1990s, despite Feingold and other critics, economists could doubt that free trade deals were causing America’s industrial and agricultural doldrums. Today the statistics confirm the worst fears. Outsourcing has wounded the country deeply.
Decades ago trade unions were the big champions of the concept of helping workers in other countries enjoy better working conditions and wages. Those rules they sought in trade deals weren’t strong enough at the start and have largely been ignored since, so not only are too many foreign workers exploited, the US is down 8 million jobs, went from federal surplus to deficit and is being asked to think of itself in terms of Third World wages and working conditions.
What also angers the American worker is growing evidence of the behavior at the top by the corporate elite. Too many of these executives said those deals weren’t just about cheaper workers and fewer environmental standards. They turned out to be lying. Too many said free trade would help by creating exports -- but look at the trade imbalance! They never seriously challenged the topsy-turvy playing field where Asian currency is undervalued to make those goods cheaper in America while American goods are blocked from foreign markets.
Too many justify the gains in their own personal income, but trickle down doesn’t even pass water these days –- the facts are they don’t spend those gains here. Many park them in overseas account while communities and families suffer.
“Creative destruction” no longer flies when the creation is their expanding wallets and the destruction is the middle class.
One of the sad things about Feingold's defeat is the loss of such vision. He saw the problem before most politicians did, and now his vision is helping them even when it's no longer a factor for his own senatorial career.