Saturday, January 26, 2008

Trickle Down Econmics Hits Home

“Well, my shoes, they come from Singapore,
My flashlight’s from Taiwan,
My tablecloth’s from Malaysia,
My belt buckle’s from the Amazon.
You know, this shirt I wear comes from the Philippines
And the car I drive is a Chevrolet.
It was put together down in Argentina
By a guy makin’ thirty cents a day.”

“Well, it’s sundown on the union
And what’s made in the U.S.A.
Sure was a good idea
‘Til greed got in the way.”
- Bob Dylan – “Union Sundown” (1983)

There’s a lot of debate right now about whether or not the country is in a recession. Here in Emporia, Kansas, that debate is probably over. In an announcement that caught our city fathers with their political britches down Tyson Foods issued a Friday press release. In two weeks, approximately 1,500 of the 2,400 of Tyson’s employees will be out of work:

“The discontinuation of slaughter operations will result in the elimination of approximately 1,500 of the 2,400 jobs currently provided at the Emporia plant. This will include people employed in first and second shift slaughter, as well as second shift processing.”

City officials are trying to put as much positive spin on the announcement as possible. City Manager Matt Zimmerman put it this way:

“To me, as the city manager, my feeling is yes, this is going to hurt, and nobody’s saying that it isn’t,” Zimmerman said. “And yes, we’re very concerned for our residents and how this is going to impact them and their families. We understand that.”

“But we also know long-term that these jobs have been absorbed by this community before, and we don’t see any reason to think that it won’t (happen again).”

On the rank and file side of the equation opinion was far less optimistic. Since last night the Emporia Gazette’s on-line forum about the layoffs has been white hot with frustration and anger, as evidenced by the some of the following comments:

“That's what I'm talking about. You've got 1,500 people who are out of work. Where are they going to go? Most of them will HAVE to move. The only places that are usually hiring in Emporia are gas stations, fast food places, and retail stores. Those jobs pay less than the Tyson employees are used to and those wages will be even worse for those who are trying to support families. There will also be competition for those jobs from the high school and college students. There just aren't enough jobs, let alone decent paying jobs, in Emporia. The only options most of these people will have is to take a crappy job in Emporia, move to another city, or work in Topeka and commute, but with the price of gas that's expensive, too.”


“With the shaky job market already in Emporia, this announcement does not make Emporia any more appealing. Modine closing, Birch's downsizing, Lenze closing, Menu announcing more layoffs this month, Tyson's announcement today, Dolly/IBC on a seems like ESU and Wal-Mart are the two companies holding Emporia together.”

While Tyson’s announcement seemed to take city officials by surprise, it shouldn’t have. This was just one small piece of what is a much larger whole. For years the sense here has been that, with our manufacturing base, this little town was (is) recession proof. But, all the while the city was doling out incentives to manufacturers to come here, globalization was moving steadily down the economic tracks. Like the Burlington Northern train whistles that scream out their warnings around here every morning, the omens of globalization’s impact were there for all to see. Wages were declining. Manufacturers were going offshore. Workers were being displaced. Here in small town America the warnings were also there. Payday loan shops proliferated in response to the needs of the working poor. Slum lords ruled. Poverty rates skyrocketed. Household incomes and wages sagged under the weight of the global changes.

The world was fundamentally changing, but those profiting weren’t going to let any populist clamor get in their way. The message to workers in the manufacturing sector or living on the economic margins ranged from the benign to the obscene. “Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.” “Shut up and keep drinkin’ your cheap wine while we continue to sip on the Chateau Lafite.” “This will all trickle down to you sooner or later.”

Well, the effects of trickle down are now beginning to cascade, like a flash flood, on Emporia, Kansas. Fifteen hundred Emporians will be out of work in a couple of weeks. About twenty percent of Emporia’s households will be affected. Twenty percent!

Not far from the Tyson plant that is downsizing, Interstate Bakeries (Dolly Madison) is on the ropes. For months now the price of a share of I.B.C. stock has fluctuated from a penny to three pennies a share. The company is on the brink of liquidation. The Teamsters, who represent almost half the workforce, are saying they’d rather have the company liquidated than to continue working with current management. Another 800 jobs are at risk!

At the national level the President and Congress have agreed in principle to an economic stimulus package to either stave off or dull the effects of recession. If all goes well the checks will soon be in the mail. All that America will need to do to restore sunnier times is to then spend like a bunch of drunken sailors.

Good God Almighty, is that the best our leaders can do? The plan, if it can be called that, is like subsidizing stupidity. The sad truth is, America isn’t going to be able to continue consuming its way out of this problem. Nor is the city of Emporia going to solve its problems by clinging to its fetish with low wage manufacturing. It’s going to take more than flirting with manufacturers, consuming, or doling out welfare to fix things. For years now Emporia’s desperate need has been a municipal Marshall plan geared toward moving the city into the 21st century. The old, stale formula of low wage manufacturing jobs and the incentives given to bring the manufacturers here has been thoroughly discredited. The old assumption that as long as those at the top succeed and profit that everyone else is fine is no longer viable. The time for bread and circuses is over. It’s time, past time actually, to re-tool and re-invent.

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