WHEATON, ILLINOIS—“In the beginning of a change, the Patriot is a scarce man—brave, hated, and scorned. When his cause succeeds, however, the timid join him. For then it costs nothing to be a patriot.” That’s the epigram by which the leader of the Rescue American Jobs Foundation, created last June to fight the exporting of service jobs overseas and the importing of foreign workers to do service jobs here, signs off her e-mails, and by that standard, the people meeting at this suburban coffee shop are patriots indeed.
Nine people are present by the time the head of Rescue American Jobs’ Illinois chapter, Charlene Clingman, brings up an idea inspired by the example of Mothers Against Drunk Driving many years ago: grassroots lobbying of state politicians. “We would research the problem and come up with a solution,” she suggests. “So if anyone is interested in volunteering, we need volunteers.”
You wonder who she’s asking. Of the nine people present, six are representatives of the press. Char has just taken some of them on a driving tour of the grandiloquently named “Illinois Research & Development Corridor”—gleaming office parks whose construction was subsidized by the state but which now, years after the waning of the technology boom, are emptying out. Char used to work in one of those office parks as a communications technician for AT&T; she was laid off two and a half years ago. Since then she has applied for over 1,000 positions.
“These people have sent all our jobs out of the country,” she says, as the two other people actually attending the meeting as participants nod along. One is her husband, who still works at AT&T; another is one of her former co-workers.
You may have read about the outsourcing issue, the great X-factor in American politics today, in cover articles in Time, Wired, Business Week. The numbers can be hard to fix. According to Time, outsourcing to India “accounts for less than 10 percent of the 2.3 million jobs lost in the U.S. over the past three years.” Wired, drawing on research from Gartner analysts, says one in 10 U.S. tech jobs will have left by the end of this year.
It is here, in rooms like this one, that the movement against outsourcing is revealed in full metaphoric flower. The media observe the efforts obsessively for signs the timid might soon be joining in torrents. But when the victims get together, they don’t know what to say.
The outsourcing of white-collar jobs overseas began in earnest during the personnel shortage caused by the run-up to Y2K. In a sense, it grew directly from a parallel phenomenon, generally ignored. Call it “in-sourcing.” Averting the catastrophe of a nation of computers suddenly partying one New Year’s morning like it was 1899 gave Congress a reasonable excuse to raise the cap on the number of H-1B visas, which are issued to allow companies to sponsor specialized foreign workers in cases of a demonstrable labor shortage.
On the other side of the world, the Y2K panic catalyzed India, which was dismantling the protectionist components of its own quasi-socialist economy, to bid for all kinds of service work to be done there—thanks to its relatively large, educated, English-speaking middle class and a providential 10.5-hour time shift that lets Indian researchers crunch numbers on behalf of sleeping American financial analysts on the East Coast.
Importing labor, exporting jobs: These are the two sides of the coin. According to the regnant economic theories, the sides are inseparable: capital scouring the world to find labor at the cheapest price, supply meeting demand, each dollar being spent at its greatest point of efficiency. A fat lot of comfort that is if you’re on the receiving end of the regnant economic theories. Capital does the scouring a lot more aggressively these days than it used to—even to the point of systematically abusing the law.
Some of the worst abuses are the “body shops,” made possible by another kind of temporary work visa: the L-1. This permit is tailored even more narrowly; it was designed to allow companies to fill short-term vacancies with transfers only from their overseas branches. And since it was intended to be of such limited application, Congress didn’t bother setting ceilings on their issuance. This proved a loophole big enough to fly a 747 through: Indian consulting companies set up U.S. branches, imported Indian computer programmers en masse, and rented them as cheap replacement parts to cost-conscious third-party companies in the U.S.
Such “intracompany transfers” made for one of the most dramatic stories of this fragile little movement. Siemens Information Communications Networks in Lake Mary, Florida, replaced its entire IT department with employees of the Indian consulting company Tata, who worked at about a third of the Americans’ salary. For a severance bonus, the displaced workers received the privilege of training their replacements. The Dickensian maneuver turned one of them into a political animal. Mike Emmons, a 42-year-old father of two, awoke one morning with the sun and sent out thousands of e-mails to Siemens employees explaining the whole dirty deal—at 5:30 a.m., while possibly suspicious Siemens network administrators slept. Like a scene out of some post-industrial Erin Brockovich, some 1,000 workers settled down to their toil one January day in 2003, opened their inboxes, and, one by one, broke into a spontaneous cascade of applause in appreciation of the brave truth-teller no longer in their midst.
Now Emmons is running for Congress, as a Democrat. He makes some great points: “You know,” he says, “I wouldn’t mind if the relentless search for cheap, cheap, cheap included critical items Americans need. While I was training my Indian replacements, my HMO insurance was being increased 84 percent, to $18,000 a year—one-half the money Siemens pays my replacement!”
Few of those cheering co-workers, however, have signed on to fight by his side; the campaign has been a shoestring travesty. His former colleagues might just be scared. Outlets like Foreign Affairs (“The Outsourcing Bogeyman”) and The New Republic (“Missed Target”) pooh-pooh the issue as hysteria—citing the same famous study from Forrester Research, they point out that we’re only talking about one job out of 30 by the year 2015, some 220,000 slots a year. But ask anyone who’s ever tried to organize a union in the post-NAFTA world, and they’ll explain just how real these fears are. The white-collar masses are learning a blue-collar kind of lesson: When the Man can suddenly make a more credible threat to replace you, he’s got a kind of power over you that he’s never had before.
Just ask Steve Landess, Rescue American Jobs’ Austin organizer. Some people at his office have been thinking about picketing at the Siemens facility just down the street. “We’re probably going to have to wear disguises so that people here won’t recognize us,” he says.
Then there is garden-variety apathy. Recently an angry thread broke out on a listserv of tech workers in North Carolina after a company called Keane (slogan: “We Get IT Done”) began boasting, on the underwriting ads it broadcasts on National Public Radio stations around the country, of its prowess at helping American companies move jobs overseas. A letter-writing campaign was proposed, and it shouldn’t have been hard to achieve. NPR invites listeners to e-mail ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin front and center on its website; Dvorkin receives some 4,000 such missives a week. He’s gotten all of five complaints about Keane’s underwriting on NPR.
The ancient, everyday anxieties of workers suddenly finding themselves dispensable in a “dynamic” economy may finally be making it onto the cover of Time magazine; but the kind of people who read Time are turning out not to be very effective advocates for their own anxieties. Part of the problem is structural. Unions could be doing more to help. But the way the law works in the United States, you can’t join a union if you serve in a “managerial” capacity. Service-oriented companies respond by classifying more and more of their workers as “managers”—where Charlene used to work, the official ratio of “managers” to “managed” is an unlikely 20 to one.
A more profound obstacle resides in the realm of the imagination. For people who would fight for alternatives, “neoliberalism”—the hegemonic doctrine that markets provide the solution to every problem—has stolen their voice. They blame foreigners instead for the demonstrable failures of laissez-faire capitalism.
When the chairman of George Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers uttered the infamous words last February that “outsourcing is just a new way of doing international trade. . . . More things are tradable than were tradable in the past, and that’s a good thing,” it sent a thousand Democrats’ tongues wagging about the cruelty of the Bush regime.
Hillary Clinton proposed a “sense of the Senate” resolution denouncing him. She forgot that her husband’s economists had said much the same thing. Clinton CEA chair Martin Baily praised outsourcing in the fall of 2000 as a welcome new “coordination of activities through a value chain spread around the world.” Indeed, Hillary Clinton has worked with Tata Consultancy Services to help them establish a body shop in Buffalo. “They’ve created 10 jobs in Buffalo and have told me and the Buffalo community that they intend to be a source of new jobs in the area,” she has said, defending herself. She has also introduced an amendment to extend job retraining funds to displaced white-collar workers. In India, the media have convincingly spun her position as supportive of outsourcing, a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.
In New Hampshire, John Kerry was asked about the problem. His answer: “We have to create the next wave of those kinds of jobs that come from the fact that we’re highly educated and deeply committed to science and technology education.” He mentioned artificial intelligence—and drew a laugh from a computer science professor who noted that artificial intelligence, the gleaming dream of the 1990s, has hardly created a single job in the world.
Such is the touching faith of our market-besotted elite. Recently New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman quoted an Indian woman who earned a Ph.D. in America and was so impressed with the ingenuity on display here that she had no time for alarmism about all the good jobs America was losing. She cited the example of the unemployed man who started a business selling T-shirts reading “My job went to India . . . and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” It took a cartoonist to do the fact-checking. On his blog, thismodernworld.com, Tom Tomorrow reported that this entrepreneur had “made about ten bucks off the idea so far.”
Reached by the Voice in his D.C. office, Friedman found that gesture churlish. “I think that American ingenuity stands on more than the anecdote by an Indian woman about something she thought she read,” he says. The economic transitions due to outsourcing, he allows, will be difficult. “But what I do believe in my gut is that innovation is the only way to stay ahead of this curve and raise our standard of living.”
Statistics from the Economic Policy Institute reveal the sinkhole underneath the theory that superior education will save our job base. Recently the unemployment rate for college graduates surpassed that for high school dropouts. All the glib happy talk of a Thomas Friedman, the panaceas of a Hillary Clinton are powerless to grasp this nettle. “What am I supposed to tell my guys who have Ph.D.’s in computer science?” asks Mark Fullerton, a software executive in Cincinnati. “To go back to school to become a nurse?”
Back in Wheaton, the meeting shambles to a close. Topics flit about, one to the next. Occasionally one of Rescue American Jobs’ three conspirators entertains a notion that their plight might have something to do with Republicans, or sellout Democrats. They sometimes even mention the obvious: that many computer people lost their jobs simply because the tech bubble, pumped beyond reason by unwise governmental decisions, burst.
Then, it’s back to blaming foreigners. It’s the only language that springs readily to mind.
Charlene suggests they support the AFL-CIO’s upcoming “Show Us the Jobs” bus tour. “This one is not filled with legal and illegal aliens like the last one,” Char assures them, referring to last year’s Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. She wears a pin that features a blue-and-white striped ribbon, AIDS style, with a life preserver in the middle; it symbolizes the newfound solidarity of blue-collar and white-collar workers, all now being thrown over the side of the same post-industrial boat. The solidarity is selective by color. “Under the L-1 ‘intra-company transfer’ visa,” Mike Emmons wrote in the inspiring e-mail to his colleagues, “Foreigners”—in bold type—can “send their kids to our schools”—the warning in red.
The elites, however, betray a racial bias of their own. A cover article in Wired reflected on the neon sign that ornaments a bridge in New Jersey, a rust belt relic: “Trenton Makes—The World Takes.” “Now that the rest of the world is acquiring knowledge, and we’re moving to work that is high concept and high touch, where innovation is essential but the path from breakthrough to commodity is swift,” Wired admonished, “the more appropriate slogan . . . might be this: America Discovers. The World Delivers.”
That’s it. We’ll save our middle class by all becoming inventors. Except that presumes brown people cannot be inventors too. Surprise, surprise—they can. Google recently opened its latest research and development facility in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley. “These employees will be involved in all aspects of Google’s computer engineering work: conception, research, implementation, and deployment,” Computerworld reported.
Or, like Boxer the Horse in Animal Farm, we must work harder. Or “smarter.”
Or follow the lead of this Canadian résumé poster, who, stung by NAFTA, sounds like many desperate Americans: “From today, I’ve started this notion by putting my six years experience to work for less [than the] usual salary OR work twice as hard as one. I will do whatever to keep my job in this country; this can be anything from working more for less to learning and adding more resources and skills to my experience.”
Our elites don’t have a better answer than that. Until they learn that sometimes it’s better to trade economic efficiency for values like fairness and equity; that strengthening the hand of labor instead of sucking up to capital can be more economically beneficial in the long term, for Americans as much as Indians (who after all might soon surrender their newfound bounty to cheaper English-speaking workers in the nearby Philippines)—until then, maybe it’s time to outsource them for another.
Additional research: Robert Zarate