This April the “free” trade winds carried more manufacturing jobs away. Levi Strauss and Co. announced it will close six U.S. factories and eliminate 3,600 jobs, many of them in Texas. This brings the total job loss for the company to 13,000 since 1997–that is twenty-four North American factories shuttered. Texas towns taking a beating this time around are Brownsville, San Benito, and yet again, El Paso. Levi’s now has only two U.S. factories left, both in San Antonio, and one of those factories will also shed 300 employees, more than half the plant’s total workforce. Thus apparel jobs that paid workers a living wage of $9 to $14 an hour plus benefits will migrate to sweatshops that might pay up to $1 an hour.
In a business not known for socially conscious companies, Levi’s was a bit of an exception, and can hardly be faulted for giving up after its sixth consecutive year of declining revenue. It just couldn’t compete against the logic of free trade–a rush to the lowest common denominator–in this case, cheap, exploitable labor. As the Observer goes to press, President Bush has set an April 22 deadline by which the Senate must approve “fast track” authority. Fast track or “trade promotion authority” as this semantically-minded administration benignly calls it, would allow Bush to negotiate complex trade deals with foreign governments and present them to Congress for an up-or-down vote, without any chance for significant debate. This is particularly frightening given that the trend in trade agreements is to create rules–administered behind closed doors by unelected bureaucrats–that supercede the laws created by our democratic process.
In what passes for opposition these days, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana is trying to hold out against the dictates of Bush. Baucus claims Senate Democrats won’t give in to the president unless he revives the now defunct Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program. The TAA provided 18 months of cash assistance and retraining for unemployed factory workers who could prove that foreign competition cost them their jobs. It expired last year. Baucus and Senate Democrats also want health insurance for affected workers as well as benefits that would cover farmers, fishermen, and collateral victims, such as truckers. Included on the wish list is a new “wage insurance” benefit for laid-off workers over 50 who are forced to take new jobs at lower pay.
The need for the last item is evident in an August 2001 General Accounting Office report on TAA. The GAO studied several cities wrecked by free trade, including El Paso, which has experienced the greatest number of NAFTA-related job losses in the United States. El Paso has lost 17,000 workers, most with low education levels and limited English proficiency since the agreement took effect on January 1, 1994. Nationwide, two-thirds of the participants in TAA were women, with an average age of 43. In the case of Levi’s, employees had worked at the plant for almost their entire adult lives. A spokesman for the company, quoted in the San Antonio Express News, said that about half the 780 employees at the El Paso plant slated to close have worked there for more than 15 years, some as many as 25 years.
These women and their families are not just losing employment. They are watching any long-term hope of escaping poverty disappear. “Apparel manufacturing jobs in El Paso have been considered a means of upward mobility for recent immigrants with limited English skills,” the GAO report notes. “Workers who had these jobs were paid union-scale wages and received fringe benefits, which provided an opportunity to buy homes and send their children to college.”
The GAO found that 18 months of paid assistance did not offer much help for women who needed to earn a high school equivalency degree and learn a language before they could even be ready for retraining for similarly paying jobs. That, of course, is assuming that such higher paying jobs even exist. Thus only 61.5 percent of dislocated workers reported finding new jobs that paid at least 80 percent of their previous wages, according to the Department of Labor.
Senate Democrats should be lauded for holding out for a renewal and expansion of TAA. But they ask too little in return for giving up a sizable portion of the power their constituents bestow upon them. In light of the very real dangers that free trade pacts can hold as a back-door method to gut labor and environmental rules here and abroad, handing the Bush administration the ability to quickly push through huge trade agreements on a single vote is unconscionable. While it seems likely that Senate Democrats will reach a compromise with Bush, fast track must then return to the House, where it was approved by only one vote. Instead of just demanding one poorly functioning federal program, Democrats in Congress should use the fast track debate as an opportunity to help struggling communities like El Paso. They can do that by calling for substantive reforms like a universal living wage and trade agreements that are subject to democratic controls. –JB