In the fall of 2004, Barack Obama made a memorable campaign appearance at sun-dappled Washington Park in Milwaukee, talking movingly about the bleak future of Maytag workers with whom he’d met in Galesburg, Illinois, whose jobs were heading off to Mexico.
In other speeches, he has often spoken of organizing laid-off steelworkers on Chicago‘s South Side who had seen their futures crumble before their eyes.
But during the current presidential primary, Obama has essentially abandoned those Maytag workers, the Chicago steelworkers, and millions of other vulnerable Americans and latched on to the corporate agenda where investor rights are enshrined and decent wages and environmental conditions sacrificed. Obama has apparently decided that the central theme of his campaign–"change"–actually translates into more of the status quo on corporate globalization and the outsourcing of US jobs.
This status quo means letting corporations re-shape the world into a global plantation through more NAFTA-style trade agreements like the one just adopted with Peru. The Bush-initiated deal with Peru, which contains no meaningful new protections for worker rights and the environment, was supported by both Obama and Hillary Clinton, although neither were present to case votes. (See David Sirota’s comments summarizing Columbia Law Prof. Mark Barenberg’s detailed analysis of the spurious claims of solid new worker protections in the Peru agreement at http://www.huffingtonpost.com / david-sirota / fair-traders-whipping-op.).
Pushed from the left by primary opponents like John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich, Obama claims to have a solution for victims of corporate flight to Mexico and China: more "retraining" and educational opportunities. But as long as corporations retain the unilateral power to relocate jobs and thereby devastate entire communities, and as long as the government provides protections and incentives for such corporate behavior, more training and education hold no certainty of employment.
Still, the New York Times heaped praised on Obama in this 12/23/07 editorial: "Barack Obama has offered the most resistance to the easy path of blaming imports from foreign countries for the woes of the American middle class. “Global trade is not going away, technology is not going away, the Internet is not going away,” he said in New Hampshire. “And that means enormous opportunities, but also means more dislocations.”
But in reality, Obama’s point in New Hampshire was absurd. No one is upset with the Internet or other technological advances. But millions of Americans, like the 77% who oppose outsourcing of US jobs according to a 2006 Pew Research poll, are alarmed about corporate flight. They recognize that "global trade" is most often a code phrase for US firms "exporting jobs" to Mexico and China and "importing" finished products from their overseas plants. NAFTA alone has been responsible for more than 879,000 job losses as of 2003, according to the Economic Policy Institute. (http://www.epinet.org/content.cfm/webfeatures_snapshots_archive_12102003ww.epi.org/ )
Yet the remedies favored by both Barack Obama and the Times editorialists–more formal education and enhanced retraining of dislocated workers–are proving to be totally empty consolation prizes for workers with insecure futures In this era of the greatest polarization of wealth that the US has seen since the 1920’s, working families deserve a better answer. We cannot continue to watch passively while the richest 1% earn an astonishing 18.1% of all (pre-tax)US income, while the bottom 40% combined makes just 12.5%.
As for piling on more university degrees to add job security, Princeton economist Prof. Alan Blinder argues that even Phds are now vulnerable to watching their jobs being sent overseas. Blinder estimates that up to 42 million professional jobs are "highly off-shorable" to low-pay sites like China, India, and elsewhere. (Wall St. Journal, 3/28/07)
On the retraining front, it is obvious that neither the Times editorialists nor Obama’s staff have bothered to read Times economics writer Louis Uchitelle’s superb book, The Disposable American. Uchitelle documents that even with retraining, 73 out of every 100 victims of mass layoffs face substantial losses in their earnings or are forced to retire early.
Obama initially appeared to be a voice of fresh thinking in American politics and the personal embodiment of immense changes in America‘s structures for opportunity. But with his embrace of corporate-designed global trade –like the new Peru agreement– and his meaningless "solution" of retraining for non-existent family-supporting jobs, Obama has turned his back both on the very displaced workers he formerly organized and on any credible claim that he represents a "change" in the global economic order.