Bob Herbert has written a column on job retraining that is very relevant for the Free Trade debate. One of the main problems with any workforce is Creative Destruction, or the replacement of outdated jobs with new technology. This is a problem that any society must cope with, and it causes severe short-term financial hardships.

Herbert discusses Skill Works, a job training program in the Boston area that trains people in dead-end jobs such as janitors to skilled positions such as  radiologists. His argument is that there is too much wasted potential in cities like Boston and that even $10 an hour is not enough for many families in places with a high cost of living.

At a time when the American dream has moved all but completely out of the reach of low-paid and poorly educated individuals comes a modest but promising joint effort by business, government, union and nonprofit leaders in the greater Boston area to open new doors to good jobs and higher standards of living.

We waste human potential in this country the way some people waste toilet tissue. For example, a person who is a part-time janitor is generally thought to be going nowhere. There's no upside to the job, and it certainly won't pay for the basic needs of a family. But what if that janitor could be trained and guided into work as a painter, an electrician, a groundskeeper or a custodial supervisor?

Why shouldn't someone who changes sheets in a hospital, or delivers meals to patients, be offered the education and training necessary to become a surgical technician, or radiologic technologist, or registered nurse?

In Boston and other parts of New England where the population is not growing, employers are increasingly being confronted with a shortage of skilled workers. The jobs are there, but the workers able to do them are not.

If this program can be replicated across the country, then it would be a good way to help retrain individuals who have lost their jobs to plant closures, subcontracting, and outsourcing.

For a free trade agreement to work, the plan must be mutually beneficial to all parties. China's standard of living has risen dramatically in the last 35 years in part thanks to free trade. But China is also in danger of experiencing boom and bust cycles in their economy due to state monopolization and massive governmental corruption. While the presence of foreign employers there serves as a cushion against economic downturns there because they have nowhere else to go, China could experience volatile times. It used to be that Japan was looked on as an economic miracle; now, their economy is stagnant.

And Mexico is a perfect example of so-called free trade gone wrong. Not only have American manufacturing plants closed and moved to Mexico where they pay substandard wages, they outrageously engage in massive pollution and dump cheap food on Mexican markets, putting millions of farmers out of business. They have been forced to either move to this country illegally, take a job at a sweatshop for $5 a day, depend on money sent from the US by relatives, or scrape by on substance farming.

Any free trade agreement we make in the future must have safeguards against collapses of certain sectors of the economy and/or cushions so that people can weather the impact of the storm. With that in mind, here are some new policy proposals:

1. All policy should reflect the fact that all American-based corporations have a primary responsibility to the US.

This should guide how we deal with trade policy and how government agencies cover stuff not specifically covered in trade law.

2. Tax breaks for corporations who subsidize education here.

Corporations spend millions of dollars training workers in foreign schools. However, as the cost of tuition rises here, corporations owe it to themselves and to the rest of the country to give out scholarships to students here in this country to pay for their education.

3. No offshore outsourcing of any governmental contract.

Tax dollars should go right back into our economy instead of leaving the country for good.

4. Cooperative companies:

Mondragon, based in Spain, is the world's largest cooperatively-owned company. The employees make the decisions; it is run similar to our own democratic system as opposed to the autocratic top-down management system in most conventional companies. Employees are not going to vote, for instance, to outsource their own jobs.

5. Any free trade agreement must include safeguards for union organizing. Unions should be able to cross boundaries and organize.

So, for instance, if GM decides to open a new plant in Indonesia, a fair trade agreement would allow the UAW to follow GM into Indonesia and organize there without fear of reprisals.

6. Environmental protections.

Environmental protections for free trade agreements should include protections for workplace toxins, have cleanup requirements, and have emissions protections.

7. Tax breaks for companies sponsoring job training programs.

Creative destruction is a fact of life, and there will always be times when workers have to adapt to changing conditions. Job training problems like SkillWorks are designed to help workers in dead-end jobs get better jobs as well as help workers displaced by outsourcing and subcontracting.


Part 1 -- Free Trade and exploitation.

1. Safeguards against exploitation.
2. Job retraining and education.
3. Stop support of military dictatorships.
4. End corporate farm subsidies.
5. Global minimum wage.

We should work to ensure that each country has a minimum wage and offer packages of economic incentives for them to implement labor laws and standards that ensure a gradually rising standard of living. We can do this in conjunction with other countries as well as the UN. These wages should be based on purchasing power of the individual countries involved.

6. Tax incentives for companies to stay in US.

Originally posted to Stop the Police State! on Mon Jun 05, 2006 at 07:44 PM PDT.

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