Pro-North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) forces staged on 9 November 1993 what may be remembered as the greatest salesman’s trick in televised propaganda. Millions of Americans had just watched CNN’s Larry King show, and its “debate” over the ratification of the agreement, between Ross Perot, the anti-Nafta crusader and independent presidential candidate, and then Vice President Al Gore, spokesman for mainstream political and business opinion about free trade and its alleged benefits to the US.
The professional politician Gore had bested the billionaire amateur Perot, but the show wasn’t over, and neither was rhetoric about Nafta. CNN followed with a post-debate debate, in which four “experts” argued over the plan of former President George H W Bush and President Bill Clinton for eliminating tariffs and integrating the Mexican, Canadian, and American economies in ways they claimed would bring money and jobs to everybody — a “win-win” scenario. One expert, a soldier for David Ricardo’s economic theory of comparative advantage, was Larry Bossidy, leader of the pro-Nafta business lobby and chairman and CEO of Allied Signal, an industrial corporation with worldwide interests, including the Autolite spark plug plant in Fostoria, Ohio.
With many fearing what Perot called the “giant sucking sound” of jobs heading to cheap labour in Mexico if Nafta passed Congress, Bossidy needed to promote the notion that the agreement would bring more work to the Midwestern rust belt, already in steep decline. So, on instructions from Gore’s media adviser Carter Eskew, Bossidy held up a plug and pronounced: “I would like to say, about the jobs, this is a spark plug, an Autolite spark plug. It’s made in Fostoria, Ohio. We make 18 million of them. We’re going to make 25 million of them; the question is, where are we going to make them? Right now you can’t sell these in Mexico because there’s a 15% tariff… if this Nafta is passed, we’ll make these in Fostoria, Ohio… we’ll have more jobs… This is a small part of a car. We export 4,000 cars to Mexico today, we’ll export 60,000 cars in the first year [of Nafta], that’s 15,000 jobs.”
As of 1 November 2010 General Motors was a ward of the federal government, the country was in prolonged economic slump, and there were 86 assembly jobs in the Fostoria factory. The remaining Autolite employees were there to make just the ceramic insulators around the plug. The rest of the jobs had moved to a maquilladora in Mexicali, where nearly 600 Mexicans were manufacturing mostly Motorcraft spark plugs, the house brand of Ford Motor Company, healthiest of the Big Three US auto companies.
A very different wage
The crucial difference between Mexicali (just south of the border from Calexico, California, on the Baja peninsula) and Fostoria was the wage scale: in Fostoria, unionised production workers made an average $22 an hour, including benefits, for a 40-hour week; in Mexicali, workers on the first two shifts made 15.5 pesos (about $1.83) an hour for a 48-hour week. Autolite’s new owner was Honeywell, dominant partner of a 1999 merger with Allied Signal, and its chairman, Dave Cote, could be pleased with his investment. The maquilladora was not only less costly to operate, it was also protected against expropriation, serious environmental supervision, and strikes by Nafta, the Mexican government and Mexico’s corrupt national labour union, the CTM. In 2009 Cole received more than $13m from his board of directors. Somewhat surprising was President Barack Obama’s embrace of Cote as a spokesman for American employment and re-industrialisation.
When I went to Fostoria, in September 2009, long freight trains still rumbled through town regularly on the railroad lines that made the city, despite its modest size (population 13,441), such an attractive place to build a factory in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But the trains weren’t stopping to pick up much and the chamber of commerce was reduced to promoting its advantages for rail photography enthusiasts. No train buffs — or anyone else — were in evidence downtown, where Readmore’s Hallmark Books and Gifts was advertising a closing sale. Vast empty parking lots abutting shuttered factories and businesses — Fostoria Industries, a maker of specialty ovens; the Thyssenkrupp Atlas crankshaft plant; the GM dealership — testified to the declining fortunes of what Fostoria’s boosters had dubbed “A Small Town in the Middle of Everywhere!”
But while factory after factory had closed down, the Autolite plant seemed impregnable — not just because of Bossidy’s pledge in 1993 but also because the plant was churning out vast quantities of spark plugs with stunning efficiency — as many as 1.2m a day on 13 production lines operating over three shifts. It couldn’t last with so many plants heading to Mexico and, after passage by Congress of permanent normal trade relations with China in 2000, the even cheaper labour of China. In January 2007 Autolite announced plans to build the plant in Mexicali, and in August said it would begin to lay off 350 of the plant’s 650 workers.
Bob Teeple, the president of United Auto Workers Local 533, is the son of an Autolite millwright, and in 1995, at age 32, he followed his father into the plant’s skilled trades, the elite of unionised blue-collar workers. There were “close to a thousand” employees at the plant. When I visited union headquarters with Hart Perry, the documentary filmmaker, Teeple was awaiting news from the company of the shutdown of everything but the ceramics section, but he wasn’t sure when most of the remaining 271 employees would have to go, since the Mexicali plant was having start-up problems.
Teeple recalled the great Nafta debate and a later visit from Larry Bossidy “who even came to the plant and made it sound like, you know, our business is doing good. But I wasn’t super aware of what effect Nafta would have. You know, it’s just one of them things that you heard on TV — pros and cons.”
Neither, it seems, were any of his co-workers super-aware of Nafta. When I sneaked inside the factory to observe one of the four production lines still in operation, I met Peggy Gillig, who was checking plugs for defects. Gillig had started work 10 years earlier, when she was 46, and she wasn’t very politically or union minded. Automation at Autolite had failed to kill her job, but politicians had succeeded: “I’m disappointed in our leaders that they’ve more or less stabbed us in the backs — sold us out to foreign interests.”
But Gillig didn’t blame poor foreigners for taking her job and preventing her from retiring at age 60, which would have been possible under the UAW contract. “It doesn’t seem like it’s good for the third world countries they [the jobs] are going to. They don’t pay those people… a living wage, so how is that good for them? I mean, it’s better than not havin’ any kind of a job… I don’t understand who it is good for other than the big companies.”
Other workers, current and former, spoke with me, including Larry Capetillo, a Spanish-speaking Mexican-American whom the company lured out of retirement in 2007 to help train workers in Mexico. Morally conflicted, Capetillo kept a journal about his dilemma. The Honeywell executive who recruited him and three other retirees claimed that the Autolite plant had lost money for the past “four to five years”, according to the journal, not so much because of production costs “but because we have 1,200 retirees”. However, if the move to Mexicali was successful, the executive had promised that “the goal is to keep 300-and-some jobs here [in Fostoria]”. Capetillo thought of Autolite as a family affair — his wife, Fran, had taken a buyout after 29 years, and his daughter, Tracy, was still employed there with her husband.
“We all knew that people were going to dislike us very much for doing this,” Capetillo told me. But the executive had been blunt: “Whether you go [to Mexico] or not, they’re going to move this. We’re going to try to make [the Mexicali plant] go if we can — if we can’t, and it goes down… the rest of this is going to close.” Capetillo said “We decided, you know, if we can keep the plant here; if we can do something to help there, we’re going to go down and try to do it then… Believe me, the four of us were not going to go, but when he said the whole operation would close if the Mexico thing did not make it, we had to make a decision.”
In his journal, Capetillo was more candid: “Many of our fellow employees hated us for making this decision.” However, “the longer we can keep this plant open the longer my daughter gets to keep her job.”
The company had no intention of keeping any plug production in Fostoria. After two years of commuting between Fostoria and Mexicali, Mexicali was ready to manufacture, as Bob Teeple put it, “everything with platinum attached to it”. When negotiations began in 2009 for a contract, the company surprised Teeple with a demand: if the union wanted to keep more than 110 jobs in Fostoria, there would be a wage cut to $11 an hour plus big employee contributions to health insurance. “We couldn’t do that,” Teeple said. Better to negotiate for good severance than to take a humiliating reduction far below the UAW norm.
“I guess I felt totally betrayed by the company,” Capetillo said. “It seems they all deal in half-truths… He did tell us that 300 jobs would stay, probably. And not even half of them stayed.”
’All of us have to help’
Ordinarily, this story would have ended on 23 December 2009, when the last integrated production line was shut down. I felt obliged to interview Dave Cote, especially since he had appeared with Obama at the White House, just after his inauguration, to promote business-government cooperation in combating severe recession. As Cote told reporters, “The Congress, the American people, all of us as a business community, all of us have to help. Mr President, I can say that for Honeywell you can count on us and all of our employees to be there to help support this.”
For months, Cote’s PR man at corporate headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey, kept putting me off, not knowing I wanted to talk about Nafta in general and Autolite in particular. It seemed just a matter of time before the remaining 99 workers in the ceramics department in Fostoria lost their jobs.
But on 4 April 2010 a catastrophe occurred — a 7.2 earthquake struck 60km from Mexicali, placing the region in a state of emergency and damaging the new plant. Honeywell’s Consumer Products Group had no choice but to move some production back to Fostoria and rehire 70 laid-off workers to satisfy demand. Before long, Teeple said, “they told us we were doing four times the production of the Mexican plant, 130,000 a day, and some days we got as high as 230,000 with two lines running for three shifts.” By October operations were back to normal in Mexicali and the 70 rehires were laid off again, for good: “Not one machine is left in department 9,” Teeple said. “All of them were shipped to the Mexicali plant.”
All Teeple had to look forward to was a 1 November 2011 contract expiration and another round of negotiations on behalf of the 86 survivors in the insulator section. “They’re telling us no, they’re not setting up kilns in Mexicali,” Teeple said in December 2010, but the company had said the same things to Larry Capetillo . The ceramic insulators could easily be made by NGK, a Japanese company with a factory in Irvine, California, much closer to the Mexicali plant. It wouldn’t be long before Fostoria’s Autolite plant, which opened in 1936, shut forever.
Teeple was demoralised. When he called me in February, he said he wouldn’t run for re-election in June as Local 533’s president and would take a buyout from the company: “I’m dead in the water. I want to change professions, go into marketing. The more you do, the more you make.” His first love, sprint-car racing, wasn’t a way to support four kids and a wife. By May, Teeple had changed his mind — a sense of obligation to union members took precedence, — and he was re-elected.
But Teeple had more bad news: on January 28 Honeywell announced that it had agreed to sell its Consumer Products Group (CPG), including Autolite and Fram Filters, to the Rank Group, a New Zealand-based, privately held investment company, for $950m in cash (1). “While CPG is a good business,” Dave Cote said in a press release, “it doesn’t fit with our portfolio of differentiated, global technologies… we are confident that the Rank Group, with its proven track record of investing in and building established franchises, will be a good home for CPG’s consumer brands, customers, and employees.”
Rank was owned by the leveraged buyout billionaire Graeme Hart, said to be worth more than $8bn. His method for making money was borrow heavily to buy companies with a healthy cash flow; cut costs and increase profits through layoffs or mergers; then issue more debt or resell the company for more than he paid. His purchase of Alcoa’s packaging and consumer group in 2008 was exemplary: after paying $2.7bn for the aluminium foil maker he cut more than 20% of the workforce by closing facilities, including 490 unionised workers at Reynolds Wrap manufacturing plants and a distribution facility in Richmond, Virginia, and by laying off 158 employees at a printing plant, also in Richmond. Under the new corporate entity, Reynolds Group Holdings Limited, Hart has assembled other packaging companies, including SIG and Evergreen Packaging. Bob Teeple was not optimistic about management-labour relations under Rank Group ownership: he predicted that Honeywell’s union-staffed Fram Filters plant in Greeneville, Ohio, would fall victim to Hart’s cost-cutting after the sale of the company became official, probably this autumn.
Rewarded for investing in the American dream
Over the past 12 years I have heard many stories about the beneficial effects of free trade from its proponents. But the stories recounted by its victims always seemed more persuasive. Among the best storytellers were two Autolite workers who lost their jobs. When I met Jerry Faeth in 2009 he was 52 and considered himself lucky. With 32 years at the plant, he would retire with a full pension, which he had planned to do just before being laid off. Both his daughters were well on their way to graduating from college, and his house in New Riegel, southeast of Fostoria, was fully paid for. He had liked Autolite because after 28 years, “I got into the prototype section of the plant. I loved working [there] because it’s something different every day and you’re not just using your hands; you’re using your mind and you’re working with college-graduated individuals who treat me as an equal.” Faeth had invested in the American dream and been rewarded: “I was fortunate because of Autolite. We had good wages… and my wife was able to quit work and stay home for eight years with our two children; and I think that’s key to some of the issues we’re having in society today because the babysitter doesn’t raise your kids like Mom or Dad.” But now he was embittered.
After the meeting at which the layoffs were announced by a Honeywell executive, Faeth said it “felt like he hit me in the stomach… I wanted five more years [in the plant] and I’m not going to get it… I said, ‘You know, you talked about us [needing to be] competitive. I contribute to the 401K in Honeywell and I get this book every year and it says the top five guys in Honeywell last year made $70 million. Sir, is that competitive?”’ According to Faeth, the executive replied: “Well, I can’t speak for Dave Cote’s salary but, you know, that comes out of a different fund anyway.” Faeth said: “‘Sir, that’s not what I asked. You can’t tell me that there’s not a smart person down there in Mexico that wouldn’t do [Cote’s] job for a whole lot less. How can he tell you that we’re makin’ too much money here when those top five guys made $70 million. What’s wrong with that picture?’ He didn’t have an answer for me.”
But others purported to have an answer to Faeth’s question. One of them is the economist R Glen Hubbard, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Business, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors in the first two years of the George W Bush administration and a villain in Inside Job (the Academy Award-winning documentary about the 2008 financial crisis). When I encountered Alison Murray at Local 533, she had read parts of his textbook, Macroeconomics.With a BA, Murray enrolled in night classes at the University of Findlay when layoffs loomed at Autolite. As a single mother, aged 42, with only 17 years in the plant, she couldn’t retire with a pension and needed to plan for the future. But her encounter with Findlay’s economics department left her troubled about post-industrial Fostoria.
Slapped in the face
“The ironic thing,” she said, “was that the very first class that I took when I went back to school was a macroeconomics class. And the whole entire textbook told us how important it was that they move the manufacturing jobs from America to other countries — and that manufacturing in America was a dinosaur and that it should be outsourced to other countries because that was the only way to make money… So it was like getting slapped in the face. I was trying to go back to school… because I’m losing my job and I’m a displaced worker… and the very first class I took, the very first page of the textbook [justifies my layoff].”
Murray argued with her teacher: “I said, ‘You know, that’s all well and great in theory but I’ve lived the human side. I’ve seen the devastation that… is caused by these factories moving out to the other countries…’ And the textbook and the teacher say, ‘Well, we’re not talking about very many jobs.’ Well, to me in this town of 15,000, to have 900 jobs [roughly the number lost at Autolite since 1993] leaving, that’s a lot… And it’s affected every single person’s life.”
But there’s no arguing with Hubbard, or even Obama, who pledged to “renegotiate” Nafta during his battle with Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Ohio primary campaign, then reversed once he entered the White House.
Hubbard’s Macroeconomics puts together supposedly irrefutable economic truths turned into clichés in the aftermath of the 2008 financial debacle. In its orthodox advocacy of tax cuts, deregulation, free trade and free markets, it has a tone of bland authority that makes it hard to challenge unless one pays close attention to arguments, alternatives, and facts he omits. His chapter on “Comparative Advantage and the Gains from International Trade” is full of unprovable generalisations: “Some people worry that firms in high-income countries will have to start paying much lower wages to compete with firms in developing countries. This fear is misplaced, however, because free trade actually raises living standards by increasing economic efficiency. When a country practices protectionism and produces goods and services it could obtain more inexpensively from other countries, it reduces its standard of living.”
Besides, says Hubbard, child labour isn’t such a bad thing, since the “alternatives” (such as prostitution) can be “extremely grim”. We can be grateful that the smart rulers of developing countries resist pressure to pay higher wages or impose environmental regulation because “jobs that seem to have very low wages based on high-income country standards are often better than the alternatives available to workers in low-income countries”. While the US has a “comparative advantage” with many skilled workers doing “sophisticated” manufacturing, “other countries, such as China, have many unskilled workers and relatively little machinery… China has a comparative advantage in the production of goods… that require unskilled workers and small amounts of simple machinery.” Nowhere is mentioned Chinese wages of 50 cents an hour, the government-controlled Chinese national labour union, the absence of a formidable Chinese environmental regulator, or the sophistication of Chinese factories.
In this distorted world, we’re all operating on a level playing field: “It is true,” the book says, that “jobs are lost” when “more-efficient foreign firms drive less-efficient domestic firms out of business.” But the same is true when “more-efficient domestic firms” kill off the competition — we’re all playing under the same global rules of free enterprise. One shouldn’t worry about the lost jobs because “these job losses are rarely permanent.”
While Jerry Faeth, Allison Murray, and Peggy Gillig awaited news of their next place of employment, and at what wage, they could contemplate Larry Bossidy’s plug promise versus the Department of Labor’s latest report on a programme called the Transitional Adjustment Administration. TAA is supposed to provide money to people who lost jobs directly as a result of Nafta, which became effective on 1 January 1994. TAA does not calculate actual job losses, only petitions made for assistance as a consequence of lost jobs. As of 21 June 2011 its “estimated number of workers covered” — those eligible for government money — stood at 2,491,479. It seemed likely that before long the figure would increase by 86, the total number of UAW members left in Autolite’s Fostoria plant.