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Greenville Burning: Free Trade Agreements Have a Habit of Destroying Small Town America



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An interesting read from writer Naureen Khan paints a picture of life in the small towns that ultimately get destroyed by free trade agreements.  As the national conversation surrounding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) continues to intensify, Khan looks at Greenville, Michigan, the former “refrigerator capital of the world,” which lost both its primary industry and its identity to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) despite a decades-long effort to keep it in tact.  

For the past few years, sites likes ours have been trying to spread light on the problems surrounding the TPP; from the complete secrecy in which it is being written and negotiated, to the legal corporate superhumanism it could create if passed.  As President Obama pushes hard for a fast-track vote on the deal, the TPP is finally beginning to scratch the surface of the mainstream. 

For Greenville, a town of 8,000, the effects of NAFTA were delayed. The last straw snapped in 2005 when the Electrolux plant finally shut down and moved to Juarez, Mexico. It took 3,000 jobs with it, two of which were held by couple Jim and Patty Hoisington. Jim had made $16.38 an hour and Patty $15.71.  The workers who replaced them in Mexico were going to earn $1.57 an hour, plus lunch and bus-fare.  They both lost their careers

As Jim and Patty explained to Naureen Khan, their jobs at Electrolux allowed them to “own a home, raise their children, and put a little away for savings.”  When their jobs were shipped across the border they took classes at a community college as part of a retraining program created by NAFTA.  But these new skills were of little use in the great recession.

Now, Jim drives a school bus for handicapped children and runs a lawn care business.  He says he averages about $4 an hour less than he did at Electrolux.  Patty works one shift a week at a convenience store for minimum wage because that it is all that is available.  Khan’s piece shows honest, hard-working people like Jim and Patty as the true victims of free trade agreements:

“I can’t even begin to put away money like I did with Electrolux in the 2000s,” he said. “The majority of the workers, I would say they’re making less.”

“I can’t buy myself a pair of shoes,” Patty lamented. “At least we’re getting our bills paid.”

Jim’s distaste for free trade agreements is rooted in anti-corporatism:

“Every trade agreement I’ve seen so far has never had a good result for us. It’s all geared for corporations,” he said. “They make money off of it and we don’t.”

Robert E. Scott, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, explained the negative effect that free trade agreements have on American workers to Al-Jazeera:

“The problem is downward pressure on wages and widespread job losses.  All these trade agreements and investment agreements have been responsible for that job loss and when workers are moved out of those industries, we’re not creating new industries for them to move into. Even when they do get a job, they earn 20 percent to 30 percent less than their old jobs.”

Over the past decades attitudes have changed about who is to blame for the plant closing, Khan writes.  Ray Jensen, a 29-year veteran of Electrolux, summed it up as follows:

“How the hell can you compete when you’re making $16 an hour, how can you compete with Mexico at $1 an hour? You can’t,” Jensen said. “I can’t really blame them for doing it, I can blame our government … The lesson could’ve been learned, hopefully.”

President Obama’s insistence on fast-tracking the unpopular TPP suggests otherwise…


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