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Babbitt and the Race to the Bottom

Babbitt and the Race to the Bottom

Berry Craig, recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360. He says, “A close encounter of the worst kind with a Babbitt moved me to knock out this one.”

In just about any small town that has lost a big factory, you'll hear it was the union's fault.

I live in Mayfield, Ky., population about 10,000. A big Continental General Tire plant was our factory. It’s been gone for a half-dozen years.

Some local merchants, hurting for customers, are still blaming the "greedy union," United Steelworkers (USW) Local 665, for the plant’s demise.

Nationwide, unions are handy scapegoats everywhere companies have shut factories and shipped production to low-wage countries.

Never mind that over and over, American unions have done all they could to help keep their plants open. Why wouldn't they? Their livelihoods are at stake.

Said Wayne Chambers, 63, Local 665’s last vice president:

We made concession after concession—in 1994, 1997 and 2001. We said we would extend our labor agreement and commit to workforce restructuring. All we asked in return was for the company to make an equal commitment to invest in the plant and in this community.

German-owned Continental was unmoved, Chambers remembered.

They said they were a global company and they were going to manufacture tires wherever they wanted and as cheaply as they wanted.

Chambers added that when the Mayfield plant closed, production went to Mexico and Brazil, where factory wages are a fraction of what they are stateside. 

At its peak, our tire factory, which opened in 1960, employed some 2,600 people—2,200 union and 400 management. Chambers worked at the plant for 38 years.

“I still hear it, ‘It’s the union’s fault the plant closed,’” Chambers said. “I don’t hear it like I used to, but I still hear it.”

So do I. The complainers remind me of George Babbitt, the main character in Babbitt, the famous 1922 novel by Sinclair Lewis.

A well-off, middle-aged real estate dealer, Babbitt believes Zenith, his fictional hometown, and the rest of the country would be better off if workers would spurn unions and "just trust and love their employers.”

Kentucky State AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan has a message for latter day Babbitts:

Blaming American workers for the demise of any manufacturing facility in the U.S., whether unionized or not…demonstrates ignorance of worldwide labor market conditions and the impact of not-so-free trade agreements, which have placed American workers in unfair competition with the lowest paid and least protected workers. Without the purchasing power that unions and collective bargaining provide, our collapsing, along with the American middle class.

He added: “The inevitable result is a race to the bottom propelled by greedy corporations that scour the globe in search of the lowest wages, most compliant governments— like the communist regime in China—and the most unorganized and exploitable labor. Corporate greed for maximum profits is what drives this machine.”

To be sure, most of our merchants don’t go around slamming the Steelworkers over the tire plant’s doom. Nor do most of my fellow citizens.

Our elected county government officials thought enough of Local 665 to make room for a memorial stone to the union—“The Rock of Labor”—to be erected on our courthouse lawn.

Many of us focus the blame for the loss of our plant where it belongs: on the greed of Continental General Tire.

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