Buying into Bigotry

 We Americans live in an amazing country.  We have cleaned up much of the pollution that I remember as a child in the 70’s, and women and racial minorities now enjoy access to jobs that were denied to them only a few decades ago.  We have a system of public agencies that protect the health and safety of workers and consumers like never before.

We have come an amazing distance in the last century.  Incredible struggles were waged over things that now seem banal and commonplace.  The 40-hour workweek, worker compensation for work related injures, unemployment insurance, legally required safety standards all came about through struggle, political action and even terrible violence. 

This clean and safe system did not come easily, however.  Take the 8-hour workday.  We take it for granted now, even though many white-collar workers are working in excess of that amount.  The price of the 8 hour day/40 hour week was paid in blood, and took decades to come to fruition. 

Few people realize that what amounted to violent insurrection occurred in Colorado in 1904 when silver miners were striking for an 8-hour day.  Federal troops arrived by railroad to force men into the mines at bayonet point.  The strikers resisted and 42 were killed, 112 wounded, and the 1300 survivors were arrested and put into concentration camps.  Eventually the survivors were herded into railroad cattle cars, just as Jews in Europe would be a few decades later and dumped just across the state line.  (Boyer & Morris, 1955, Chapter 5).  It took another 35 years for Congress to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, making the eight-hour workday and forty-hour week a federal law.

However, there is a continuing cost for the health and safety laws we enjoy, but Americans are not the ones who are paying it. 

Johnson Controls owned a battery manufacturing plant.  In the 1970’s management became aware of the risk that lead exposure had on pregnant women, and were concerned about liability exposure if a female employee produced a child handicapped by lead exposure.  As a result, they discouraged women from working in high lead areas, and required women to sign a statement that they understood the danger to fetuses.  

Everything was fine for a few years, until women in other industries began filing and winning suits that held employers liable for birth defects of children.  Between 1979 and 1983, eight women working for Johnson became pregnant while having dangerously high lead levels in their bodies.  Johnson now took a more proactive stance and denied women of childbearing age jobs in areas considered dangerous.   

In 1984, three workers sued the company, not because they were seeking compensation for birth defects of their babies due to lead exposure, but for sexual discrimination.  Specifically, they held that Johnson was violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and illegally discriminating against women in the guise of protecting fetuses.  The suit wound its way through the federal court system for years, but finally made it to the Supreme Court who ruled in 1991 that Johnson Controls did indeed break the law and discriminate against women.  (UAW vs. Johnson Controls Inc., 499 U.S. 187 1991)

Wonderful!  Now women can work wherever they want and the businesses in which they work are responsible for the safety of their unborn, un-conceived and even unthought-of of children.  Consequently, business would clean up manufacturing process and everyone would benefit from the increased safety measures.  This is a famous case celebrated to this day as a milestone in workplace safety and equality.

However, this is only the beginning of the story, and it is still unfolding.

Johnson Controls, as well as every other battery manufacturer in the United States could not afford to make the battery manufacturing industry safe for women who decided to have children.  There were too many inherent dangers that were beyond control.  What did Johnson do?  They sold the assets of the plant to a Mexican company that rebuilt it just on the other side of the border.  Mexico, of course has very few of the worker protection laws that the United States does. 

The United States had effectively exported its problems to Mexico.  American wombs might be sacrosanct in the workplace, but such values do not extend to Mexico.  Anyone standing on the US side of the border in the mid 1980’s and looking south would have been amazed at all the American names on buildings just over the international line – Goodrich, Frigidaire, Corning Glass.  This was about the same time that the United States gave Mexico a huge amount of money to prime its economy. It was also about the same time that American companies were looking to divest themselves of dirty dangerous industries. 

The Johnson case was a harbinger of what was to come for companies that continued dirty and dangerous operations.  Mexican companies bought up assets of American companies that were illegal or too expensive to operate in the US because of increasing environmental or safety regulations.  This caused a mini housing boom in the upscale areas of Tucson as wealthy Mexicans invested their money in an economy they trusted – ours – rather than in their own. 

So much for priming the Mexican economy.

Things have not changed much.  We Americans import all sorts of things from all over the world.  Finding a label that says, “Made in USA” is so rare that we take note of it and point it out to our friends.  Our consumer goods now come primarily from China and Asia where everything from textiles to Christmas toys are made.  What no one wants to take note of is that we have exported our dirty, dangerous industrial sector overseas, while we smugly brag to the world about our clean environment and safe working conditions. 

At the same time, we have imported labor that is free of the costs of health and safety requirements.

The cost of paying an employee is far higher than most people realize.  A good way to estimate how much it costs a business to employ a worker is to multiply the wage paid the worker by 1.5.  That extra 50 pays for things mandated by the government, but never seen by the employee.   Quarterly tax withholding, the employer portion of health insurance, the costs of training, fees paid to staffing companies and the like are things that the employer pays, but has no immediate benefit to the worker.  One way to lower operating costs of a business is to hire and pay people “under the table”, and that has created an illegal labor force that makes up about 8% of all employees in the United States.

Our cars are clean and shiny thanks to inexpensive car washes, and our landscaping is always beautiful because of reasonable landscaping costs.  Home construction would be more expensive if we paid  construction workers what the laws mandate we do.   These things are inexpensive not because we pay illegal workers so little – they seem to be paid about as much as anyone else -- it is because we do not pay health and safety costs at all.  Moreover, we all know it.

This is not the first time this has happened.  What we are living now has similarities to the economic realities  that supported slavery in the United States more than a century ago.  We have forgotten that slavery was an economic necessity for the south, not a simple outgrowth of racism.  Without slave labor, commodity crops like cotton and tobacco could not have been produced and exported to Europe for a competitive price.  (A commodity is a product or service that is indistinguishable from competitors and must compete only on price; competition is restricted to charging the lowest price.) 

Proof of the economic value of slave labor is obvious if we consider the aftermath of the Civil War.  It was not until mechanical pickers arrived in cotton and tobacco fields in the 1920’s that the economies of southern states emerged from a depression that started after the Civil War.  Of course, the introduction of mechanical pickers resulted in a large-scale migration of black Americans to the Steel Belt and set the stage for urban poverty and the social convolution of the 1960’s (Rifkin 1995).

It is not as if we – all of us – don’t’ know what is going on.  There is a continuous stream of news stories about Chinese imports side by side with news stories about Chinese smog and the lungs of our athletes competing at the 2008 Olympics.  We know that Wal-Mart has low prices because most of what they sell is made in China, and we know the impact of our buying decisions, yet we continue to buy.  

Baron, Byrne & Branscombe (2007) characterizes modern racism as “concealing prejudice from others in public settings, but expressing bigoted attitudes when it is safe to do so”.  (P. 238)  Do buying decisions reveal bigoted attitudes?  I do not know.  I suppose it depends on how aware the buyer is of the consequences of the buying decision.  Much like Europeans in the 1850’s who supported slavery by buying cheap cotton products, while at the same time denigrating the United States for using slaves to produce it cheaply.

One of the properties of micro-aggression is that the aggressor does not know they are being racist.  Does that make us a nation of bigots?  I do not know the answer to that either.  I am certain, however, that our economy is, to a large extent, carried on the backs of people all over the world who do not happen to be white.              

 

References

Baron, R., Byrne, D. & Branscombe, N., (2007) Social Psychology, 11th Ed. Boston:  Pearson.

Boyer, R. & Morris, H. (1955). Labors untold history. New York, NY: United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers

Rifkin, J. (1995). The End of Work. New York, NY: GP Putnam and Sons.

UAW vs. Johnson Controls Inc., 499 U.S. 187 (1991)

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