It's fashionable these days among the politicians, pundits and so-called experts to claim that free trade is actually good for us. They say it enables us to buy cheaper goods made with cheap foreign labor and this, in turn, raises our standard of living. With all due respect, the free traders need to ask themselves a more fundamental question: how will Americans buy those goods when they don't even have a paycheck that covers their mortgage, much less the college tuition for their children?
Virg Bernero is my new hero. The mayor of Lansing, Michigan is taking the message of the American laborer and shoving it so tightly down the throats of the pundits, they're getting bilious just thinking about him.
When they began inviting him onto their shows last fall to talk about the prospects of a Big Three bailout, they thought they were dealing with the biggest yokel on the planet. This'll be fun! You could see it in the smirks on their faces, in their sit-back-and-laugh postures, in their questions meant to provoke rather than inform. Outside of Ron Gettelfinger, the president of UAW, (I'm elevating him to hero status, too), who the heck would be out there speaking FOR labor these days? And who in their right mind would do it on, of all places, Fox News?
Well, it turns out that Virg would--every chance he got--and once he was on a roll, nobody was going to shut him up. In November he sparred with Neil Cavuto twice in three days.
In December he did it again, caling the Auto Companies "the most patriotic companies in America". Virg says when all the other companies were shipping their jobs overseas, the American auto companies stayed in America. It's true--to a point. They have shipped some jobs overseas, just not as many. But can we talk about this? Apparently not. See how quickly he's bid a fond adieu by the interviewers.
Here he spends some quality time with some of the folks at CNN--John Roberts, Ali Velshi, Ciran Chetry and Christine Romans--all apparent experts on what this country needs to get going again.
Ali Velshi to Virg: ". . .It's the fact that things are made more cheaply in other parts of the world, which has, in a lot of cases, helped many Americans in their standard of living. They've been able to buy cheaper goods."
Virg: "I disagree vehemently. . ." (It was early in the interview. Virg hadn't gotten his steam up.)
Virg, picking up speed: "I'm tired of hearing the American worker being beat up upon, and people told you need to be more competitive; you need to be more competitive. What they're really talking about is 'cut your wages, cut your benefits, work for nothing, like some peasant somewhere else in the world'. Well, I'm sorry--I'm tired of the American standard of living brought down to the lowest common denominator. We need fair trade agreements fairly enforced."
Christine Romans, using the tired 'some people say' tactic , said: "You will hear from a lot of decision makers that manufacturing is very 20th century and this is a service economy and that we have to innovate and we have to come up with the next thing that's going to move the economy forward. How does that square with Michigan and its labor base?"
Lordy, did she really say that? Yes, Virg heard it, too, but to his credit, given the condescension dripping from her tongue, he remembered what his mother taught him about being polite to women--even silly women--and gave Ms. Romans way more nice than she deserved.
"With all due respect," Virg said, "That--what you just said--I've heard it before. I'm not saying this about you. . . "
Okay. With that out of the way, he wasted no time in getting back on track:
". . .But that is absolute bull. That has been perpetrated by Wall Street. The idea that you can be a service economy. . .What are you servicing? How can you service. . . What are you going to serve? Hamburgers? That is total, utter nonsense that Wall Street has been spewing for years. That's part of the unholy alliance. We need manufacturing in this country. Manufacturing is at the apex of the economy. When you give up manufacturing, you are giving up your future."
That interview was on February 6. I don't know where else Virg has been since then, but just the other day (February 18) he finally quit sparring and went for the jugular, totally obliterating Fox News's Greg Jarrett, who just wanted to know why the unions shouldn't go ahead and give their concession speeches already and get out of Big Business's hair.
Oh, that Virg! He has to talk fast, and he has to talk straight, because it may not be long before the air waves are closed to him forever. You can't have pro-labor people out there making too much sense.
The interesting thing about the Bernero blitz is that those talking points are nothing new. It's a conversation that has gone on in every labor family, ever since unions began surfacing in the early part of the 20th Century. During the Reagan years, when the systematic undermining of labor unions began to get serious, the conversations grew hot and heavy, but, outside of the interested few, nobody else cared.
Along with watching the government-condoned slow but sure destruction of our labor unions, most of the country sat passively still while Big Business thumbed their noses at good old American Can-Do and Know-How by moving major chunks of our formerly vibrant manufacturing base outside our borders. A precious few protested when millions of jobs were outsourced and lost to Americans on the strength of wage packages alone. For years it was okay by us (you, that is) that millions of American wage-earners took home smaller paychecks and forfeited better benefits so that the Fat Cats who owned the businesses could live the life-styles of Sultans and Kings.
This is what happened because of it:
Our economy has collapsed in ways we couldn't have even imagined a mere eight years ago, on Inaugural Day, 2000.
We're in a protracted war brought on by hubris and greed, and encouraged by stupidity.
We owe our souls to our national credit company, communist China, and we can't pay them back because we don't make anything anymore.
Health care costs are going through the roof while health care benefits are a thing of the past for many, many millions.
Our food, our water, our very air isn't safe.
We're slowly selling off our natural resources to the highest bidder because we can't afford to keep them anymore.
And hundreds of thousands of American citizens are losing their jobs every month. (That's every month.)
So this shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody, given the sorry state of our nation, but the Fat Cat glory days are over. You'll be getting no more sacrificial lambs from what's left of our puny work force. Even the workers in the south are finally waking up to the con game called "low wages and no benefits are good for me and you--especially me".
In order to build an essential, strong labor force in this country, we need labor activists to combat the still mighty hold of the greedy Kings of Commerce who would rather see our nation destroyed than give up their thrones.
People like Virg Bernero and Ron Gettelfinger and, occasionaly, Barack Obama, understand the important role labor needs to play in order to bring us back to prosperity. We need good jobs that pay well in order to get back to spending again. (People without money don't buy things. I'm just saying, because some people still don't get it.)
On the campaign trail Barack Obama said, loud and clear, "I believe we have to reverse many of the policies toward organized labor that we have seen over the past eight years, policies with which I have sharply disagreed." and "You cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement."
Hold him to that. Labor doesn't have a chance if it doesn't organize. "Solidarity Forever" isn't just a song. It's a battle cry again.