On Becoming a Wal-mart Greeter

Charles Leach describes himself as a 62-year-old, silver-haired, overweight, wing tip shoe-wearing president of a small company that manufactures textile screen printing inks – “not exactly the ‘neo-hippie anarchist’ the media picks out as the typical WTO protester.”

It’s not that Leach was in the streets of Seattle protesting the WTO in 1999. He lives in Lynchburg, Ohio and, as he puts it, “instead of doing something productive, like attempting to shut down a WTO meeting, I have been wasting my time pushing a ‘Human Standards Import Fee’.”

In the name of Calvin “The business of America is business” Coolidge, what is Leach talking about?

Leach knows what many of the “experts” now concede – globalization is no panacea. In fact, it has some severe consequences for ordinary people.

Sounding like a “know-nothing” protestor, Leach sees globalization, as it is now being championed, as essentially “a race to the bottom” – an international system in which there is “a transfer of wealth from the world’s poorest people to world’s richest.” Hence, his idea: the “Human Standards Import Fee.”

But before, we get to that concept, let me share with you why Leach identifies with the “senseless” protestors.

“My little company will probably close this year due to the domino effect of globalization. For over three decades I have been involved in the textile screen printing industry. The industry has had its ups and downs, but has historically been a magnet for creative entrepreneurs with more passion than cash,” he says.

Recall with me the words of President Bush. No. 43 said he wanted to “encourage entrepreneurship – the path to prosperity taken by so many….Across America, more than 1 in 5 jobs is created by a business that didn’t exist a decade ago…The entrepreneurs of America create jobs, take risks and make their profits with honor.”

But “prosperity is not a given,” the Prez said, “and governments don’t create it. Wealth is created by Americans – by creativity and enterprise risk-taking…The role of government is to create an environment where businesses and entrepreneurs and families can dream and flourish.”

And here comes the kicker. “We’ll be prosperous,” he said, “if we embrace free trade. I’ll work to end tarriffs and break down barriers everywhere, en-tirely, so the whole world trades in freedom.”

Ah, yes globalization, “free-trade,” and the flourishing of entrepreneurs.

Leach continues: “T-shirt printing shops were typically family operations, and often started when the bread winner was laid off. Any creative person with a few thousand dollars, who was willing to work, could keep food on the family table, a roof over the family’s head, and send the kids to college.”

“Family owned t-shirt shops sprang up in cities and towns across the country and companies such as mine sprang up to supply them with the materials they required.”

“As demand for printed apparel grew, big companies moved in to supply big retail chains. Wal-Mart did not buy from mom and pop operations. With bigger companies, and automation, supply soon started to exceed demand and gian retailers could soon set prices.

“To remain profitable, most companies put in higher speed equipment, thus exacerbating the situation. Soon they started moving their operations to Mexico, where low labor costs and freedom from environmental concerns allowed even lower prices.

“With prices for printed apparel plunging, mom and pop operations across the country closed, as did the local distrubtors set up to serve them. As the race to the bottom continues, companies are moving out of Mexico and into countries where even lower wages can be paid.”

“Mills across the once booming ‘textile belt’ in the Carolinas, having moved there from New England to lower labor costs, were also moving to Mexico and then on to even more poverty-stricken countries. The companies that supply them have been forced to follow their customers or close down.”

Sounding like one of the pesky protestors, Leach points out: “Executives of companies that move often remain in the United States, where tey won’t have to cope with Third World living conditions, and put their ever increasing salaries in off-shore banks so they can avoid paying taxes. The latest scam is to leave corporate headquarters in the United States, but incorporate in Bermuda to avoid paying corporate taxes, thus shifting even more of the burden of paying for government services to the middle class.”

Now, back to Leach’s idea of a “Human Standards Import Fee.” The concept is pretty simply, he explained to me last week. “An import duty, amounting to, say, 66 to 75 percent of the savings accrued by manufacturing a product in a Third World country, where people are not paid enough to afford decent food, shelter, and health care, and where the environment can be destroyed without penalties; would be applied to a produce when it enters the (U.S.).

“The money would be held in escrow for a period of one to two years. If, within that time, the country or corporation of origin presents a plan to use the money to improve the workers standard of living and protect their environment, and said plan is approved, the money would be released for the expressed purpose. If a plan is not presented and approved in the allotted time the money would be used to pay health care costs and so forth of displaced workers,” he said.

Leach says the prospects for his company are not too bright. “I will probably soon join the growing ranks of people who have helped build a once vibrant industry, and who have then been displaced by globalization.

“I plan to become a greeter at Wal-Mart, giving people carts that they can fill with merchandise made in China. That is OK for old codgers like me but where do younger people, displaced from jobs that paid a decent wage go? Where is the new haven for creative hard working entrepreneurs with a few thousand dollars?”

Although Leach considers himself a Barry Goldwater conservative, he’s not convinced by Bush’s speech writers. He voted for Nader and said he might have voted for McCain if he had won the GOP nomination.

“I haven’t changed my views since Goldwater but now I’m considered a flaming liberal,” he said, adding, “we’re still the number one market in the world. If we can unilaterally bomb another country, we ought to be able to unilaterally establish a Human Standards Import Fee or something like it.”

ZNet contributor Sean Gonsalves is a nationally syndicated columnist and staff writer for the Cape Cod Times. E-mail him at [email protected]

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