As Cheaper Chinese Tires Roll In, Obama Faces an Early Trade Test
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
ALBANY, Ga. — At the vast Cooper Tire plant here, workers heard for years about their rivals in Chinese factories.
In meetings, managers urged employees to run production lines faster and more efficiently to help the company keep up. Overseas laborers were toiling for as little as 20 cents an hour, they were told, and working harder.
Even more ominously, while browsing the aisles of Kmart and Wal-Mart, Cooper employees could see that, sure enough, the Chinese tires were cheapest.
“They would have these meetings and say we’re up against the Chinese,” said Larry Burkes, 29, who worked at the plant, which rises on the city’s outskirts just beyond a mobile-home park. “We’d hear it all the time: ‘They work for less.’ There was pressure.”
Now the plant that employed 2,100 people in this small south Georgia city is being shut down, and the troubles afflicting the U.S. tire industry are at the core of what many consider to be one of President Obama’s first major decisions on trade policy.
It’s not about cheaper tires or strawberries, it’s about what it’s always about. Profits.
Goodyear, Firestone and Cooper make perfectly fine tires and Americans are willing to pay for them. But to equate a 20 cent an hour Chinese wage with the reason the Georgie plant is closing is just plain disingenuous.
America once had a tariff policy, just as it once had a manufacturing base and once had good jobs at good wages. The American worker didn’t throw that out, American corporations did, with a global trade policy. Most of us stood by as trade meeting after trade meeting was bombarded by protesters waving placards that claimed the trade policies were eating the heart out of American enterprise.
We looked the other way, as those who were trying to save us were hauled off to jail.
And so, here we are, a mere decade or so down the road with privatized health care, privatized airlines and taking our shoes off in airports while corporate helicopters ply the Hudson, saving executives the commute we make to catch a plane. It’s free-market economics, where the freedom is for profit and the cost is paid by lost jobs. Some freedom.
I was as guilty as anyone, cheering on good old Milton Friedman and his free markets. Milton was a success in South America, breaking the back of labor as he freed up capital and profits, while enslaving workers. Then, when Argentina collapsed, we jumped in with U.S. tax dollars to bail them out. Ditto Asia and Russia in the 90s.
Who, one might ask, will bail out the United States of America?