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Working In These Times

Friday, Jan 7, 2011, 1:29 pm

Will Anger Over Offshoring, Free-Trade Deals, Cost Obama Re-election in 2012?

BY Roger Bybee

With nearly 9 out of 10 Americans convinced that the "offshoring" of jobs to Mexico, China, and India was a top reason for job loss and America's struggling economy, how did the Democrats manage to turn November 2 into such a massacre for their candidates?

This is a crucial question for labor, because the Republican gains not only  destroyed labor's chances for moving forward on issues like the Employee Free Choice Act on easier union recognition, but also opened the gates for radical attacks on public employees and perhaps the biggest concerted push for "right-to-work" laws banning the union shop since the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.

Essentially, President Obama and the Democrats failed to offer a credible narrative on the continued economic slump that directly blamed Corporate America for offshoring jobs. The consequences could be huge: Both a loss of faith in the Democrats among working people, and a loss of union membership due to the huge increase in Republican power.

ANTI-OFFSHORING SENTIMENT NOT TOUCHED BY NARRATIVE

When unemployment is high, the party in power is normally punished in midterm elections. But this was no normal year: Voters were widely and deeply convinced that corporate offshoring of jobs—not just government policy—plays a role in decimating jobs and their communities.

The public is unified as never before across class, educational, and partisan lines about the destructive effects of "free trade" agreements and the offshoring of jobs that it such FTAs promote.

An October Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reported on by the Wall Street Journal showed the remarkably strong and widespread public anxiety—86% overall—over the export of jobs:   “In the recent WSJ/NBC poll, 83 percent of blue-collar workers agreed that outsourcing of manufacturing to foreign countries with lower wages was a reason the U.S. economy was struggling and more people weren't being hired; no other factor was so often cited for current economic ills."

Remarkably, 90% of Republicans—compared with 84% of Democrats—expressed worry in the poll about the economic effects of offshoring. And the level of concern among blue-collar workers was lower than the general level of 86% and substantially below that expressed by professionals and managerial employees, at 95%, probably because blue-collar workers have long been subject to the threat of offshoring.

"The important change is that very well-educated and upper-income people compared to five to 10 years ago have shifted their opinion and are now expressing significant concern about the notion of...free trade," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster.

Among those earning $75,000 or more, 50 percent now say free-trade pacts have hurt the United States, up from 24% who said the same in 1999. No doubt the fast-growing phenomenon of offshoring professional jobs helps to explain this shift.

DEMOCRATS COULD HAVE PLAYED STRONGER HAND

The near-unanimous worry about offshoring (including 90% of Republicans), resentment about US corporations creating jobs overseas but not at home, and the possibility of dividing the Republicans by heavily stressing the offshoring issue—should have created the possibility of a Democratic counter-attack against the Republicans' illogical claims that government spending to stimulate the economy was somehow costing jobs.

But President Obama stepped back from pushing a strong economic narrative that would have pointed out how corporate offshoring was undermining his economic stimulus efforts. Even in staunchly pro-union communities like my hometown of Racine, Wis., Obama barely mentioned the issue of offshoring.

The offshoring issue emerged only when individual Democratic candidates began to highlight the issue with their speeches and TV ads. House candidates attacking "free trade" and offshoring were three times more likely to win than pro-"free trade" Democrats, according to a detailed analysis by Public Campaign's Global Trade Watch. The study also showed a vast explosion in the national importance of the issue as it became a central theme in many elections.

But what lessons, if any, did Obama draw from the massacre in which 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats were lost? He cavalierly turned the very next week to promoting a NAFTA-style free trade agreement with South Korea. The deal is fiercely opposed by the AFL-CIO, and the Economic Policy Institute estimates that it will cost 159,000 US jobs.

Pollster Ruy Teixeira of the Center for America's Progress views Obama's push for the South Korea free-trade aagreement as deepening the estrangement already felt by many working people.

"Trying to run around doing free trade agreements [Obama is also planning such deals with Colombia and Panama] seems counterintuitive," the pollster and analyst stated in an interview. "To a lot of voters, it will seem too cozy with the higher reaches of economic power.

"People would respond better to a more populist tone from the president, given that the party suffered nearly a 30-point deficit among moderate to low-income Democrats on Nov. 2. President Obama may be underestimating how weary people are about losing jobs and what a negative reaction that they will have," Teixeira cautioned.

Still, the issue of offshoring jobs must gain media visibility before elites in both parties must start addressing the issue, argues Jeff Faux, president of the Economic Policy Institute. Thus far, media "gatekeepers"—who share the pro-"free trade" perspective of corporate CEOs and their political allies in both parties—have largely dismissed concern about offshoring-caused job loss as backward-looking protectionism.

RE-FRAME AS FIGHT ABOUT JOBS OF THE FUTURE

That makes it all the more vital for labor and its progressive allies to "re-frame" the issue of preserving America's productive base, saving jobs, and protecting income standards. "The debate has  to be framed that it's about the future of the country," Faux stresses. "Right now, it's been framed in the mainstream media as the loss of jobs from bygone era."

But significant obstacles remain to labor and progressives pressing Obama on offshoring.

The Republicans' unwavering, fanatical attacks on President Obama and virtually every reform of the last century will tend to deny progressives the political space to challenge Obama's politically and economically disastrous "free trade" policies.  "There will be a definite impulse to circle the wagons because he's under such attack from the Right, and progressives will find themselves in that circle, too," maintains Ruy Texeira.

While Obama may toss progressives an occasional concession on trade issues, he will ultimately have to win back his 2008 voters and convince them that he is sincere and serious about fighting to prevent jobs from being off-shored.

ONE-TERM PRESIDENCY BECAUSE OF "FREE TRADE' STANCE?

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, makes a persuasive case (Common Dreams.org, 11/3/10) that Obama cannot hope to be re-elected without taking decisive action to stop the tide of offshoring jobs and promoting an alternative "fair trade" model that protects US jobs and workers' rights and the environment around the world.

Without regaining the faith of voters in the industrial Midwest--where unions' numbers are now threatened by the "right-to-work" offensive-- who were crucial to his victory in 2008, it is hard to see any path to an Obama can reelection, says Wallach:

In 2008, Obama only won the election because he won the critical states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by differentiating himself from McCain on trade. It is pretty obvious with Dems and GOP nationwide running against the trade status quo and its job offshoring damage, that if Obama flip-flops now in favor of more job-killing NAFTA agreements, he will lose those states and end up a one-term president.

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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