Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

President Trump’s Hollow Job Promises

President Trump’s election success rested to a considerable degree on his pre-election attack on globalization and verbal pledge to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. However, as I argued in a previous post, there is no reason to believe that President Trump is serious about wanting to restrict corporate mobility or fashion new, more domestically-centered, worker-friendly trade relations.

In fact, several of his appointees to key economic policy positions are people whose past work was promoting the very globalization he criticized.

Still, there are some in the labor and progressive communities who continue to hold out hope that they can find common ground with the Trump administration on trade.  Unfortunately, it appears that these people are ignoring what we do know about the nature of existing manufacturing jobs in the globalized industries that President Trump claims he will target for restructuring.  Sadly, the experience of workers in many of those jobs reveals the hollowness of Trump’s promises to working people.

The Southern Strategy of the Automobile Industry

The automobile industry, one of the most globalized of US manufacturing industries, offers a powerful example of the dangers of thinking simply about employment numbers. As an Economic Policy Institute report describes:

Political and market pressure on Japanese and European (and later, Korean) manufacturers to reduce imports to the United States has led to a rising number of “transplants” supplying auto components and assembling autos.

Initially, the transplants operated in the Midwest, including assembly plants in Illinois (Mitsubishi), Michigan (Mazda), Ohio (Honda), and Pennsylvania (Volkswagen), along with California (Toyota’s joint venture with General Motors, now a Tesla facility). More recently, however, the growth has been in Southern states, including assembly plants in Alabama (Honda, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz), Georgia (Kia), Kentucky (Toyota), Mississippi (Nissan and Toyota), South Carolina (BMW and Mercedes-Benz), Tennessee (Nissan and Volkswagen), and Texas (Toyota).

As a result of these trends, the weight of motor vehicle manufacturing employment (including parts suppliers) in the United States has shifted from the Midwest to the South.  And what kind of jobs has this investment brought?  The title of a Bloomberg Businessweek article – Inside Alabama’s Auto Jobs Boom: Cheap Wages, Little Training, Crushed Limbs – sums it up all too well.

As the article explains:

Alabama has been trying on the nickname “New Detroit.” Its burgeoning auto parts industry employs 26,000 workers, who last year earned $1.3 billion in wages. Georgia and Mississippi have similar, though smaller, auto parts sectors. This factory growth, after the long, painful demise of the region’s textile industry, would seem to be just the kind of manufacturing renaissance President Donald Trump and his supporters are looking for.

Except that it also epitomizes the global economy’s race to the bottom. Parts suppliers in the American South compete for low-margin orders against suppliers in Mexico and Asia. They promise delivery schedules they can’t possibly meet and face ruinous penalties if they fall short. Employees work ungodly hours, six or seven days a week, for months on end. Pay is low, turnover is high, training is scant, and safety is an afterthought, usually after someone is badly hurt. Many of the same woes that typify work conditions at contract manufacturers across Asia now bedevil parts plants in the South.

“The supply chain isn’t going just to Bangladesh. It’s going to Alabama and Georgia,” says David Michaels, who ran OSHA for the last seven years of the Obama administration. Safety at the Southern car factories themselves is generally good, he says. The situation is much worse at parts suppliers, where workers earn about 70¢ for every dollar earned by auto parts workers in Michigan, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Many plants in the North are unionized; only a few are in the South.)

In 2014, OSHA’s Atlanta office, after detecting a high number of safety violations at the region’s parts suppliers, launched a crackdown. The agency cited one year, 2010, when workers in Alabama parts plants had a 50 percent higher rate of illness and injury than the U.S. auto parts industry as a whole. That gap has narrowed, but the incidence of traumatic injuries in Alabama’s auto parts plants remains 9 percent higher than in Michigan’s and 8 percent higher than in Ohio’s. In 2015 the chances of losing a finger or limb in an Alabama parts factory was double the amputation risk nationally for the industry, 65 percent higher than in Michigan and 33 percent above the rate in Ohio.

The article provides several stories of low paid workers forced to work in unsafe conditions who suffered devastating injuries.  “OSHA records obtained by Bloomberg document burning flesh, crushed limbs, dismembered body parts, and a flailing fall into a vat of acid. The files read like Upton Sinclair, or even Dickens.”

The Story of Reco Allen

Here is one story from the article: in 2013 Reco Allen, a 35 year old father of three, with a wife working at Walmart, took at $9 an hour job with Surge Staffing, a temp agency that provides workers to Matsu Alabama, a Honda parts supplier.  Allen sought and was given a janitorial position at Matsu.  But after six weeks on the job, he was pressured by a supervisor to finish his shift by working on a metal-stamping press.  Matsu was in danger of not meeting its parts quota and the company “could have been fined $20,000 by Honda for every minute its shortfall held up the company’s assembly line.”

Allen received no training on operating the machine.  Moreover, there were known problems with the vertical safety beam that was supposed to keep the machine from operating if a worker was in danger of being caught in the stamping process.  Tragically, Allen’s arm was indeed caught by the die that stamped the metal parts.  As Businessweek reports:

He stood there for an hour, his flesh burning inside the heated press. Someone brought a fan to cool him off. . . . When emergency crews finally freed him, his left hand was “flat like a pancake,” Allen says, and parts of three fingers were gone. His right hand was severed at the wrist, attached to his arm by a piece of skin. A paramedic cradled the gloved hand at Allen’s side all the way to the hospital. Surgeons removed it that morning and amputated the rest of his right forearm to avert gangrene several weeks later.

The company had been told by the plant’s safety committee several times that the machine needed horizontal as well as vertical safety beams. In fact, one year before Allen’s accident, another worker suffered a crushed hand on the same machine.  Moreover, the company’s treatment of Allen was far from unusual.  Matsu “provided no hands-on training, routinely ordered untrained temps to operate machines, sped up presses beyond manufacturers’ specifications, and allowed oil to leak onto the floor.”

And what happened to the company?  They received a $103,000 fine from an Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

The Businessweek article includes several other stories of workers maimed because of unsafe work conditions at firms with long histories of safety violations.  And they all ended in much the same way: with corporations paying minimal fines.  And, apparently with little change in corporate behavior.

Known Knowns

We know that most employers will push production as hard as they can to cut costs, with little regard for worker safety.  We also know that union jobs are better than non-union jobs in terms of wages and benefits, and safety.

We also know that President Trump is taking steps to weaken labor laws and unions, as well as gut federal and state agencies charged with protecting worker health and safety and the environment.

Thus, even if President Trump does succeed in enticing some globalized corporations to shift parts of their respective production networks back to the US, the experience of the auto industry demonstrates that the resulting job creation is unlikely to satisfy worker demands for safe, living wage jobs.

In sum, no matter the campaign rhetoric, and no matter the twists and turns in policy, it should be clear to all that President Trump is committed to an anti-worker agenda.

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