“Our” Jobs

Our jobs are being taken by foreigners. Our jobs are being sent overseas.

I hear statements like those a lot. There is a lot of fear, anxiety and anger in the air these days over the loss of “our” jobs.

I get it. My sympathy and loyalty is with the so-called working class–my people–, who are having the economic rug pulled out from under their feet by the “new” economy. Lots of folks who once held manufacturing or mining jobs that could support a family, for example, are now left scrambling for much lower paying jobs and seeing their middle class dreams vanish. I just read that in West Virginia over half of adult population is unemployed. One man featured in the story lost his $28/hour job as coal miner and is now working for $11/hour in a pawn shop. He lost his home and he and his family had to move in with his mother. And he was one of the lucky ones. Of course this isn’t just a problem in West Virginia.

Since the Civil War, the dominant industry and principal employer in our community was a textile mill. But the mill is history now–just abandoned buildings. Once the largest cotton mill in the world–and the economic hub of our community–the company finally gave up the ghost in 2006. It just couldn’t compete in the new global marketplace, where labor is much cheaper in developing nations.

So thousands of “our” jobs went overseas. But how did they come to be “our” jobs in the first place?

When Dan River Mill was founded in 1882 there were already plenty of textile mills in the U.S. They were predominantly in New England. But the impoverished South had something to offer that New England didn’t–lots of poor people willing to work for very low wages. In fact, the wages paid at Dan River Mills were 30-50% lower than the wages paid at New England mills. The lower cost of labor enabled Dan River to thrive and grow, driving the New England mills out of existence, costing their employees their jobs and destroying the economies of their towns. That’s just how the system works. Dog eat dog.

So when “our” jobs (jobs that paid the bills for many of my friends and family) went to Mexico, India and China, it should not have been surprising. That’s what industrialism does–it seeks out the cheapest possible labor, then moves on when it discovers people who are willing to sell their labor even cheaper.

And this is why it is foolish to stake our economic future on manufacturing and industrialism.

Our community’s elected leaders continue to promise that they are going to bring industry to our town. But why would “industry” come here, to a mainly rural and not highly educated community? There would only be one reason–cheap labor. So the only thing we have to offer to “industry” is a poor population willing to work for low wages. That is not a path to prosperity.

Meanwhile we are surrounded by some of the best farmland in the word, and most of our community dutifully goes to the grocery store every week to buy food grown (or more often manufactured) thousands of miles away.

Maybe it’s time to make our jobs be truly OUR jobs.