Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lock up the silver -- the labor unions are coming. Or not. -- Feb. 27, 2014 column


South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley likes to say she wears high heels not as a fashion statement but to kick unions.  
 “Unions are trying to get in wherever they can…My job is to make sure I keep kicking them out,” Haley, a Republican, said the other day.
 “We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water,” she told Rudolph Bell of the Greenville News in a video interview posted online.
Such anti-union stiletto swagger probably plays well on the campaign trail, and Haley is running for re-election this fall. But a governor who turns up her nose at good-paying jobs? Be careful what you wish for.
To hear some Southern Republican politicians, labor unions are the William Tecumseh Sherman of our time, aiming to lay waste to the South. Conservative activist Grover Norquist said as much during the battle over whether the United Auto Workers would represent Volkswagen workers at its plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The UAW vote was “step one” of a union march on the South, Norquist said.
“They get this (plant), then they start moving toward the other large companies…This is the gateway to the South, and by that I mean all the right-to-work, not heavily unionized, states,” he warned, according to a Reuters report.
Don’t head to the basement with the silver just yet. The VW workers voted 712-626 against union representation.
 In South Carolina, Haley says she would welcome more of those non-union BMW jobs. But “I discourage” factories with unions, she added. Her Democratic gubernatorial opponent, State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, sensibly said that “if Ford Motor Co. wanted to bring 10,000 jobs to South Carolina, we would welcome them with open arms.”
The organizing fight in Chattanooga took on epic proportions, with the Republican governor, state legislators and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker warning of dire consequences if the union prevailed. Corker, a Republican, said he had it on good authority that Volkswagen would add an SUV assembly line, if workers rejected the union.
The hand-to-hand combat was surprising because the company was not fighting the union. Volkswagen was officially neutral but tacitly supportive. It wanted – and still hopes -- to initiate a “works council” in Chattanooga, like those in its factories in Germany and other countries.
A works council brings together blue- and white-collar employees to make decisions about workplace issues, such as new equipment or scheduling, in a cooperative setting. The council system exists in all of VW’s plants except for Chattanooga and those in China. Under American labor law, though, workers need a union before there can be a works council.
It’s preposterous to think that Americans can’t distinguish between the bad old days of union-company warfare and a new, third way of collaborative management. After all, unions have been shrinking in size and clout for decades. Last year, only 11.3 percent of U.S. workers belonged to unions. In 1983, about 20 percent did.
North Carolina had the lowest level of union membership at 3 percent. Five percent of Virginia workers were union members. In South Carolina, 3.7 percent of workers belonged to unions; in Tennessee, 6.1 percent. Union representation is growing in Alabama, where 10.7 percent of workers were union members, but even that is under the national average. New York has the largest share of union members, 24.4 percent.
Southern states are among the 24 right-to-work states, where a worker cannot be forced to join a union because closed shops are banned. Even Michigan is now a right-to-work state; its law went into effect last March.   
After the vote in Chattanooga, the head of Volkswagen’s top works council in Germany suggested that the company might think twice before locating again in the South.
“I can imagine fairly well that another VW factory in the United States, provided that one more should still be set up there, does not necessarily have to be assigned to the South again,” Bernd Osterloh told the German newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
It would serve certain Southern politicians right.   
© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cool cats in D.C.? Yes, in a museum -- Feb. 20, 2014 column


“You can’t fake true cool,” Bob Dylan said in his Chrysler Super Bowl commercial as a photo of James Dean flashed on the screen.

Dylan, selling cars at 72, and Dean, the “Rebel Without a Cause” actor who died in 1955 at the age of 24, are among 100 certified cool Americans in a new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.

The “American Cool” exhibit of mostly black-and-white portraits includes actors Lauren Bacall, Marlon Brando, Benicio Del Toro and Steve McQueen;  musicians Johnny Cash, Miles Davis, Jay-Z and Bonnie Raitt; writers James Baldwin, William Burroughs, Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker; and athletes Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Jack Johnson and Michael Jordan. 

Not one president or elected official made the list, but if the Presidents Day throng of exhibit-goers was an indication, Washington is hungry for cool. It’s also possible, though, that the gray heads who were grooving to cool Marvin Gaye had given up on the long lines upstairs where, for one weekend, visitors could look at David Datuna’s “Portrait of America” through Google glass. There’s cool and then there’s new cool.  

I almost skipped the “American Cool” exhibit, thinking that once cool is enshrined in a museum it can’t be cool anymore. Plus, while I understand that museums need to attract visitors, I hate to see them pander.

The Newseum, for example, has been struggling financially for years despite thoughtful exhibits on such topics as Civil War journalism and JFK. Desperate last fall to recoup losses, it opened a major exhibit of 60 costumes, “hilarious props” and other paraphernalia from the 2004 movie “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” just before a movie sequel was released. Stay classy, Newseum? I think not.

But “American Cool,” through Sept. 7, manages to be entertaining and thought-provoking. The captivating images make us think about the elusive quality of cool. I watched as writer Joan Didion, leaning against the door of her Corvette Stingray in 1970, mesmerized three young women for several minutes.

Fred Astaire is there but not Ginger Rogers. The only entrepreneur is a young Steve Jobs, long-haired and bearded, riding a motorcycle, bareheaded.

My idea of cool runs more to George Catlin than George Carlin – but neither is in the exhibit.  

Fortunately for us, Catlin painted native Americans in the 1830s before their way of  life vanished forever. He gave up a successful business as a portrait painter in Philadelphia and headed west on several trips he paid for himself. Eighteen of his colorful portraits hang on a curved staircase in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art, which adjoins the portrait gallery.

It’s seems odd that Carlin, a comedian famous for his biting social commentary, didn’t make it, although Lenny Bruce did. Carlin won the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor just a few days before he died in 2008.  

And Twain may be the father of modern American literature but he’s absent too – not because he pre-dates cool, a concept born in the jazzy 1940s. Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglass made it.

The exhibit is the product of five years’ work by two cultural historians with doctorates in American studies, Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear III.

Dinerstein is director of the American Studies department at Tulane University, where he teaches a class in the history of cool. No, he tells students, he himself is not cool nor can he teach them how to be cool. Goodyear, a former photography curator at the portrait gallery, is co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine.

To make the cool list, someone had to have three elements of these four: originality of artistic vision and of signature style; cultural rebellion in a given historical moment; “iconicity” or high-profile recognition, and a recognized cultural legacy.

And they needed something else: a great photo. Carlin met the other criteria but no suitable photo could be found. He appears on an Alt-100 list of runners up, along with Tony Bennett, Clark Gable, Jerry Garcia, Jack London, Norman Mailer and Janis Joplin.

No worries. When you’re truly cool, you don’t need to be in a museum.

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Now's time to repair debt ceiling for future -- Feb. 12, 2014 column


“The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining,” President Kennedy said in his 1962 State of the Union Address.

The sun is shining, and now’s the time to fix the debt ceiling for the future.  

Led by Speaker John Boehner, the House stepped back from the brink Tuesday and approved extending the federal government’s borrowing authority until March 15, 2015, no strings attached. The Senate followed Wednesday.  

Congress does its job -- hip, hip, hurray!

It’s a sign of our low expectations of Washington that the absence of a last-minute game of chicken was considered a great achievement.  

The country will not suffer a self-inflicted fiscal black eye. Yes! The government will honor its debts, federal parks will stay open and our economy won’t go into a tailspin. We’re No. 1!

There will be peace in the valley again. Ha. Let’s not go overboard. Forget peace in the valley or on the Hill.   

Boehner tried for two weeks to squeeze concessions from the White House in return for Republican votes to lift the debt ceiling. A change in the Affordable Care Act? No.  Approval of the Keystone XL pipeline? No. Restoration of cost-of-living increases to military pensions? No. 

President Barack Obama wouldn’t budge from a “clean” bill.

Boehner told his House Republican colleagues at a private breakfast Tuesday that the measure would include no special conditions. The goal was practical: Congress would do its job and avoid an election-year repeat of last fall’s high drama showdown and shutdown.

Last October, Republicans hoping to kill the health law forced a 16-day federal government shutdown that did nothing to dislodge Obamacare but took a $24 billion bite out of the economy, as estimated by Standard & Poor. Americans mostly blamed Republicans, although Democrats’ approval ratings slid as well.  

“We’re not going to make ourselves the story,” Boehner said at the breakfast, The Washington Post reported. The room was hushed as he returned to his seat.

“I’m getting this monkey off your back, and you’re not going to even clap?” the Ohio Republican asked in mock scorn. Such is party unity among the GOP.

Boehner has long had problems bringing his conference together at all, much less mustering the 218 votes that constitute a House majority.

“When you don’t have 218 votes, you have nothing,” he told reporters.

The debt limit measure passed 221 to 201 in the House, with 199 Republicans voting no. Boehner and 27 of his fellow Republicans voted for it. Most of the GOP yes votes came from House leaders, such as Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, or members who are retiring, such as Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia. 

The White House didn’t gloat, but press secretary Jay Carney did suggest that Congress now get behind Obama’s push to hike the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and renew long-term jobless benefits. As if.

Congress and the White House should use the breathing room of the next year to work together to make the debt ceiling a non- issue, as it once was. Neither party should lose stature because it acts responsibly. Paying our bills should be a given, not a bargaining chip.

Some in Congress have introduced fixes to the recurring debit limit debacle. Rep. Mike Honda, a California Democrat, and Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Chuck Schumer of New York and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii have bills that would shift the role of Congress. Instead of approving increases in the debt ceiling, Congress would have to disapprove them.

A similar proposal by Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, became part of last fall’s deal that raised the debt ceiling until Feb. 7. Democrats want to make permanent the McConnell fix.

A few centrist Republicans say they’re interested in the idea, but it’s unlikely to gain traction this year as Democrats and Republicans score political points before the midterm elections.

Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, “When this is over, we will focus on our agenda and – if we win six seats in the Senate – what we will do different if we control all of Congress.”

Boehner was wrong about one thing.  Republicans did become the story. Washington news has become a running tally of winners and losers.    

“GOP’s debt ceiling surrender,” read headlines in Politico and other news outlets.

This time, though, the Republicans’ political retreat was a victory for the country. Boehner deserves a hand. 

And as the sun shines, Democrats and Republicans should join in fixing the debt ceiling for the future.

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Health law empowers workers to love -- or shove -- their jobs -- Feb. 6, 2014 column


The latest skirmish in the Capitol over the Affordable Care Act – the false claim that it would force 2.3 million people onto the jobless rolls -- reveals more about the sorry state of our politics than a search for sound policy. That’s a shame.

Most congressional Democrats, spooked by the botched rollout of insurance exchanges, distance themselves from the unpopular law. They cling to the rosy view that one day it will be as popular as Medicare – and can only hope voters warm to it by the midterm elections.

Congressional Republicans have such animosity for Obamacare that they look for the dark side of every study or report. They disavow the very policies they once championed.

A few years ago, Republicans abandoned support for the individual mandate – the requirement that everyone have health insurance – even though it was a Republican idea, endorsed by the conservative Heritage Foundation. It became a horrible idea once President Barack Obama adopted it.

This week, the health law’s haters were quick to tweet that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office had projected that the law would cost 2.3 million jobs over 10 years. The report said no such thing. 

The study, “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024,” does estimate an employment reduction of 2.3 million people by 2024 -- due not to employer layoffs but to employee choice.

Some Americans have long been tied to jobs because they couldn’t obtain or couldn’t afford health insurance on their own, a phenomenon called “job lock.” Now, the near-universal availability of health insurance under the law means no one has to stay in a job because of benefits. People have options. They can quit, reduce their work hours, retire early or go into business for themselves.

Being handed a pink slip is one thing, saying “take this job and shove it” quite another, as Douglas Elmendorf, CBO director, explained Wednesday at a hearing of the House Budget Committee:

“The reason that we don’t use the term `lost jobs’ is because there is a critical difference between people who would like to work and can’t find a job – or have a job that was lost for reasons beyond their control – and people who choose not to work.

“If somebody comes up to you and says, ‘Well the boss said I’m being laid off because we don’t have enough business to pay me,’ that person feels bad about that and we sympathize with them…If somebody comes up to you and says, `I’ve decided to retire or I’ve decided to stay home and spend more time with my family or spend more time doing my hobby,’ they don’t feel bad about it – they feel good about it. And we don’t sympathize. We say congratulations,” Elmendorf said.

Job seekers will snap up the jobs those people leave behind, he said, and the overall unemployment rate is projected to decline.

Under the health law, low- and moderate-income people can get immediate tax credits to pay for insurance. The tax credits phase out with higher income and may provide a disincentive for some workers to put in more hours, CBO says.

Critics claim that the law encourages slackers, and that’s terrible policy. They didn’t always think so. 
In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain proposed a health care plan that would have ended job lock. Heritage Foundation analysts Robert E. Moffitt and Nina Owcharenko praised the plan. 

“Individuals would no longer feel obligated to stay with their employers simply because they need to keep their employer-based insurance. If the worker lost a job, changed jobs or retired early, he or she could buy an insurance policy and offset its cost with the McCain health care tax credit,” they wrote.

In the Budget Committee hearing, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the committee, cited Heritage’s previous support.

“Well, the Affordable Care Act does end that job lock. It allows Americans to choose to spend more time with their family or pursue their dreams. And that is not a bad thing; it's a good thing,” he said.

I agree. Mobility in the workplace was good when McCain proposed it, and it’s good now.  

©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Textiles are making a comeback -- STATELINE story

You may be surprised what's Made in the USA

Textile Industry Comes Back to Life, Especially in South

A shopper in Omaha, Neb., checks out Swiffer products. The U.S. textile industry is making a small resurgence making yarns and fibers for products such as Swiffer, diapers and towels. (AP)
American workers might have made the mop you waltz around the kitchen floor, your favorite bath towel or your facial wipes. Surprised? Decades after many people thought the U.S. textile industry was dead, the industrygenerated $54 billion in shipments in 2012 and employed about 233,000 people.
Business is on the upswing as Southern states, in particular, woo textile companies with tax breaks, reliable utilities, modern ports and airports and a dependable, trained and nonunion workforce.
In 2013, companies in Brazil, Canada, China, Dubai, Great Britain, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Switzerland, as well as in the U.S., announced plans to open or expand textile plants in Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The workers produce yarn, thread and fabric for apparel, furnishings, home products and industrial use. Examples include Huggies and Pampers diapers, Swiffer mops and Pledge furniture wipes, according to David Rousse, president of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry.
“Textiles manufacturing – yarn, fabric, woven and nonwoven – is still here and growing,” said A. Blanton Godfrey, dean of the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University. “We’re selling cotton yarn cheaper than the Chinese.”
True, textile manufacturing in the U.S. dropped precipitously in the 1990s and 2000s as cheaper labor drew jobs overseas. Automation and increased productivity of textile mills also cost jobs. More than 200,000 textile manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation in the last decade.
Textiles, mostly cotton, once dominated the economy of the South. Employment peaked in June 1948 with 1.3 million jobs.  In just one state, North Carolina, 40 percent of its jobs were in textile and apparel manufacturing in 1940. By 2013, just 1.1 percent of that state’s jobs were in textiles.
About 650 textile plants closed between 1997 and 2009, draining thousands of jobs and depressing communities.
But rising wages in China and other countries, combined with higher transportation costs and tariffs, have prompted foreign and domestic companies to consider American manufacturing sites. Also, with more consumers looking for the “Made in the USA” label, some companies are turning to American goods. Wal-Mart, for example, pledged last year to buy $50 billion over a decade in American-made products, among them towels and washcloths.

Highly Automated Plants

More than a third of all textile jobs were located in Georgia and North Carolina in 2012, and that’s where many of the jobs are being created. The new plants are nothing like the dusty, noisy mills of the past.
These highly automated plants require far fewer — but more tech-savvy — workers who earn higher pay than their forebears. The average textile wage in the U.S. in 2012 was $37,900, compared with $60,496 for all manufacturing jobs. In North Carolina, the average textile wage was $33,219, up from $28,216 in 2002.
“Norma Rae would have trouble getting a job,” said Godfrey, the college dean, referring to the 1979 movie about a young textile worker who leads a union-organizing campaign. The movie was based on the story of Crystal Lee Jordan, a 33-year-old mother of three who was making $2.65 an hour folding towels at a North Carolina mill in 1973 when she began an organizing push.
“But if Norma Rae wants to sit at a computer terminal and program the robot, that’s different. It’s a very different world,” he said.
Another change in the industry is the growth of nonwovens, which are fiber-based products made of fabric that’s compressed, heated or tangled, like felt. Diapers and facial wipes, mops, medical scrubs and all kinds of filters are nonwovens. In the last decade, North Carolina has gained 1,945 jobs making nonwoven products and $719 million in nonwoven factory investment.
“It’s not your grandmother’s textile mill,” said economist Ted Abernathy, whose four grandparents worked in textile mills while he was growing up in North Carolina. The long-time executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board until it merged last fall with the Southern Governors’ Association, Abernathy now is a consultant to the governors’ group.
“The good news for the South is that the lowest-end jobs are not coming back,” Abernathy said. “New jobs are in the $35,000 to $45,000 a year range.”
Top 10 States in Textile Manufacturing
# Jobs in 2012
% Decline Since 2002

States Jockey for Jobs

As states compete for jobs, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, touts his state’s top national ranking for business climate bySite Selection magazine, a trade publication. Deal recently signed a law exempting energy used in manufacturing from sales and use taxes, which helps existing and future manufacturing facilities.
Tom Croteau, Georgia’s deputy commissioner for global commerce, said the state’s long history of carpet manufacturing has been essential to growing its textile industry. In 2013, five floor-covering manufacturing companies announced expansions that will add 3,550 jobs to the 22,382 existing carpet- and rug-manufacturing jobs and a $815 million in investment in Georgia.
“A primary building block of Georgia’s business climate is our highly skilled workforce,” Croteau said. Helping train those workers is Georgia’s Quick Start program, which began as a modest training program in1967 and has since provided customized training to more than 325,000 workers in more than 3,100 businesses and industries.
In October, Shrivallabh Pittie Group, a leading textile manufacturer in India, chose Georgia as the site of company’s first U.S.-based manufacturing facility, a $70 million cotton yarn plant in Screven County that will hire 250 people. The firm will locate on an industrial site developed by the state and its workers will  receive Quick Start training.

Textile Manufacturing Culture

In North Carolina, nine textile firms announced plans in 2013 to build or expand plants in the state, creating 993 jobs and investing $381 million. Sharon Decker, the state secretary of commerce, cited three factors that helped her state win the new factories:  culture, education and a competitive business climate.
“North Carolina has a historically strong manufacturing base, in textiles especially,” Decker said. “The notion of a culture of textile manufacturing – people know it’s still there.”
The state offered grants totaling $4.4 million to the nine textile companies to create jobs. The largest in the group is Gildan Activewear, a Canadian firm that has committed to invest $250 million and hire 500 workers. Gildan received a $3.5 million state Job Development Investment Grant, a cash grant based on actual job creation. 
The North Carolina legislature boosted its business climate in 2013 by lowering personal income tax and corporate income tax rates. The corporate income tax will drop from 6.9 percent to 6 percent in 2014 to 5 percent in 2016, a 28 percent rate cut. Rates could drop further if economic growth yields more revenue.
Meanwhile, the state university’s textiles school works with the business sector to help prepare workers for the new jobs, Decker said.
One challenge these days is getting young people interested in textile factory work, she said. One mill owner has started bringing middle school students in for tours to show them how technologically advanced the facilities are.

Filling a Crater

In Lancaster County, S.C., textile mills owned by the Springs family were dominant employers for 120 years, with about 11,000 workers in the 1970s and 1980s. The family sold the company to a Brazilian company in 2005, and the last mill in South Carolina closed in 2007, taking the remaining 3,500 jobs to Brazil.
“It left a crater,” said Keith Tunnell, president of the Lancaster County Economic Development Corporation. “Then the recession came – a double hit.” Unemployment soared to 18.6 percent in June 2009.
About 21 months ago, the South Carolina Department of Commerce told Tunnell that a cotton spinning company was looking for a U.S. manufacturing site. “I was stunned,” he said. Even more surprising: The company is Chinese.
Competition for the plant among the states ended in December when Keer Group announced it will invest $218 million to build a 230,000-square-foot yarn factory and create 501 jobs within five years in Lancaster County.
“We chose to locate our first U.S. facility in South Carolina for a number of reasons, which include the state’s workforce, proximity to cotton producers and access to the port” in Charleston, said Keer chairman Zhu Shanqing, according to news reports.
South Carolina gave Keer a $4 million Rural Infrastructure Grant, and the county development corporation offered an additional $7.7 million bond to attract the company.  Keer agreed to pay workers at least $13.25 an hour, the average manufacturing wage rate in Lancaster County.
The Keer jobs are nowhere nearly enough to replace the old textile jobs, but are welcome news in a county of 79,000 where the unemployment rate is 8.1 percent.
Tunnell hopes to attract more Chinese companies. What can he share with other state and local officials?  
“If any community that was hit as hard as we were is looking to Washington, D.C., to fix your problems, you’re wasting your time. Tip O’Neill said all politics is local,” Tunnell said, referring to the late speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts. “I say all economic development is local.”