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Gov. Scott Walker riding a motorcycle made by Harley-Davidson, which has announced during his time in office that it would begin manufacturing some bikes overseas. (Edward David / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Scott Walker’s Offshoring Flip-flop

Wisconsin Gov. Walker’s convenient crusade against offshoring may prove to be surprisingly good for the state’s working people.

BY Roger Bybee

The former CEO of Wisconsin-based Serigraph, John Torinus, remarked 'Isn’t it strange when a pro-business Republican governor finds it advantageous to bash an entrepreneurial company with 1,000 jobs in Wisconsin to put the hurt on his opponent?'

Confronted with a serious challenge in the form of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—the “state’s biggest cheerleader for business”—has begun incorporating anti-offshoring rhetoric into his campaign.

With the elections just around the corner, Walker’s attacks on offshoring are focused on a single enemy: the Trek bicycle firm, owned by Burke’s family.

Though Trek has indeed opened factories overseas, Trek is also the only bicycle manufacturer currently manufacturing its products in the United States—and in Walker’s home state, no less. The critique also ignores the fact that Burke worked in the marketing department and that the current head of the company, her brother John, says she had nothing to do with the offshoring decision.

That the attacks are political posturing seems clear, as Walker remains silent on offshoring as it relates to his corporate donors and allies.

But Walker’s offshoring flip-flop isn’t just an attempt to trip up Burke—Mr. Right-to-Work is trying to divert attention from his administration’s abysmal record on jobs and labor in a state still mired in the effects of the Great Recession.

Walker’s campaign has been weighed down by his administration’s failure to realize its 2010 campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs. If the governor sticks to his current pace, the administration will meet less than half of its initial goal. Additionally, in 2013 Wisconsin ranked 39th in the nation in the rate of job growth—the lowest among all 10 Midwestern states.

The Right's not buying it either

Given those numbers,  it’s understandable that Walker and his advisors are growing anxious over how offshoring and other labor issues could swing voters. An October 2010 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed 86 percent of those surveyed—both Democrats and Republicans—thought that the export of jobs “is a reason the U.S. economy is struggling and more people aren’t being hired.”  The concern is a legitimate one in the U.S. economy, which is becoming increasingly globalized and corporation-friendly. A full 48 percent of “all sales by Standard and Poor’s top 500 U.S. firms [are] of items produced outside the United States,” according to economist Jeff Faux.

The Left has long been on Walker’s case; now, for once, the Right agrees.

In the eyes of the conservative Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Walker’s line of attack is “laughable.” The business community, too, seem confident Walker’s new hardline stance on offshoring is a political ploy, despite the fact that the governor’s position could have real repercussions for the practice if it begins to translate into state policy. The former CEO of Wisconsin-based Serigraph, John Torinus, remarked “Isn’t it strange when a pro-business Republican governor finds it advantageous to bash an entrepreneurial company with 1,000 jobs in Wisconsin to put the hurt on his opponent?”

A new report from the liberal research and advocacy group One Wisconsin Now reveals just how hypocritical Walker’s new stance is.

One Wisconsin Now points out a number of grants from the Walker-privatized Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation a number of job-creation grants had gone to firms engaged in sending jobs to states other than Wisconsin, and outside of the U.S. itself. (It also notes that 60 percent of that funding from went to businesses that donated to Walker’s 2010 campaign.)

When it comes to keeping business in Wisconsin, Walker—like the watchdog in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Silver Blaze”—has been “the dog that didn’t bark.”

The firms that have announced relocation of jobs or expansions in low-wage nations, especially Mexico and China—possibly portending in many cases a loss of additional Wisconsin jobs in the future—during Walker’s tenure comprise a substantial list:

Wisconsin-based Harley-Davidson announced it would begin manufacturing some bikes in India; General Electric has moved the headquarters of its Medical Equipment Division to Beijing, China from the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha; Caterpillar laid off more than 300 workers in its South Milwaukee plant while announcing the opening of new manufacturing facilities in Wuxi, China; Thermo-Fisher is moving 1,100 jobs from Two Rivers to Mexico; and Manitowoc Co. plans to cut more than 150 jobs in Wisconsin over the next two years as it shifts production to Monterrey, Mexico.

Yet Walker has chosen to only speak out against the offshoring in the case of Trek Corp.

Offshoring a hot topic once again

Ironically, however, the reality of offshoring in Wisconsin has gained attention since Walker’s attempt to undermine Burke by vocally opposing the practice. Taking advantage of Walker’s bluster, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca put forward a proposal to prevent firms that offshore jobs from receiving state money and tax incentives. Driven by his own rhetorical momentum, Walker had no choice but to throw his support behind the proposal.

If Walker’s hypocritical charges against Burke start to get Wisconsinites focused on these realities about the real toll of offshoring, then one of the most divisive governors in the state’s history will have performed a truly valuable service.

In the past, pro-corporate politicians of both parties—notably Bill Clinton and Al Gore for the Democrats—have fostered the notion that the U.S. can afford to lose manufacturing jobs overseas while Americans step up to higher-skilled and higher-paying technical jobs.

But, according to Frank Emspak, professor emeritus in labor studies at UW-Madison, it turns out that manufacturing and technical, design, and engineering jobs are intertwined. So as manufacturing moves abroad, the high-paying tech jobs are unlikely to be created in the U.S.. “When you have the separation of production from engineering, once you start production of anything sophisticated, then you lose the capacity for innovation,” Emspak said. “So with General Electric moving its medical equipment headquarters from Waukesha, Waukesha becomes just a branch plant and the innovations and advances will take place in Beijing.”

And though Walker’s rhetorical blasts at Mary Burke and Trek may lack authenticity, Wisconsin’s anti-labor governor may do a service to working people yet—by, paradoxically, intensifying public outrage over offshoring.

Correction: This piece originally stated, inaccurately, that Harley-Davidson was moving 500 jobs to India. 

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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