Oak Creek is Microcosm of Unfair Trade Policies

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Commentary: by Steve Jagler of SBT

The news that Delphi Corp. intends to close its two Oak Creek plants and eliminate about 1,000 United Auto Workers jobs isn’t exactly a wake-up call. After all, America has been hitting the snooze alarm for some time now.

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We all know the up side to free markets and global trading: We get to buy $45 bicycles and the like at Wal-Mart.

However, this equation also has an ever-expanding dark side, and Oak Creek’s predicament is a microcosm of that dark side. Gone will be hundreds of family-supporting jobs. Jobs that not only paid living wages, but provided health care benefits and vacations. In turn, those workers went out and spent their hard-earned money, buying vehicles, boats, televisions, computers and myriad other items. In effect, that money supported other jobs and businesses in the region.

What came around went around.

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When I was growing up in Oak Creek, I knew dozens of friends whose parents worked at the Delphi plant. Those parents got up every morning and went to work. In return, they were able to make a living that enabled them to send their children to college or maybe buy a cottage up north.

They were living the middle class American dream. If they worked hard, they were rewarded for it, and they could even afford a comfortable retirement with a pension.

Today, that dream is eroding from the outside in.

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Just beyond the gates of the Delphi plant, Oak Creek’s Howell Avenue has become a generic, neon, retail strip mall. Most of the stores and restaurants pay wages that do not support families. Most do not provide health benefits to their employees.

Consider this: More than 40 percent of the enrollees in Badger Care, Wisconsin’s health care benefits program for the working poor, are employees of Wal-Mart. Think about that for a moment. Small businesses are paying taxes to cover the health care costs of Wal-Mart employees.

Many businesspeople have been throwing up their hands in resignation and saying, "Well, what are you going to do? We’re for free trading."

Former President Ronald Reagan was in favor of free trading, too. However, Reagan understood that "free" trading doesn’t really  happen without "fair" trading. He demanded that foreign markets stop undercutting the American dollar. Before other countries could have access to American markets, he demanded concessions in return. Such concessions resulted in Toyota building several automotive plants in the United States, where they hired American workers.

In his weekly radio address on Sept. 7, 1985, Reagan said, "I’m committed to and will continue to fight for fair trade. American exporters and American workers deserve a fair shake abroad, and we intend to see they get it."

The laissez-faire, weak-kneed resignation that the United States is powerless to demand trade concessions from other countries seeking access to our lucrative society started en masse during the Clinton administration and accelerated during the Bush administration. These policies have resulted in a record national trading deficit.

When people question these policies, they’re accused of being protectionist or isolationist.

Poppycock. This is not an either/or equation. Let us hope we’re done hitting the snooze button. The future of the American middle class is at stake. In the end, we are all in this together. After all, if the middle class dies, who is going to buy your company’s goods or services?

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