What Can the South Teach About Globalization?

auto workerGlobalization and the South

As early as 1953, C. Vann Woodward was pointing out that the South’s protracted struggle with poverty, tragedy, and defeat, actually gave it more in common historically with the rest of the world than with the rest of the United States.  One of the implications of Woodward’s exploration of “The Irony of Southern History” was that there might be substantial benefit in studying its historical commonalities with other nations and societies around the world.  Reports of China losing large numbers of its textile and apparel jobs to even cheaper labor markets,  now suggest that leaders in locales as distant as Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia may now find lessons of their own in South’s past that might prove critical to their nations’ futures.

China’s initial efforts to attract low-wage, labor-intensive industries with promises of hordes of docile workers eager to work on practically any terms the employer might impose along with tax incentives and assurances of minimal government regulation seem strikingly reminiscent of the post-World War II South’s courtship of new industry.  With development leaders promising a bottomless pool of low-wage workers, labor organizers who ventured into the right-to-work South were lucky to escape with their skulls intact, much less their dignity, and public universities like Clemson even schooled corporate execs in the finer points of union-avoidance.  Generous public subsidies to new employers also became the order of the day.

At one point Louisiana was handing out exemptions amounting to roughly 20 percent of its property tax collections each year, forgoing tomorrow-oriented investments in education and infrastructure in the interest of guaranteed payrolls today.  The guarantees on those payrolls were not exactly ironclad, however, as the rise of global industrial mobility would ultimately make clear.  By the end of the 1970s, the Piedmont textile belt began losing thousands of jobs each year to so-called Third World countries, and, in the mid-nineties, with NAFTA helping to throw the remaining flood gates all the way open, eleven southern states saw what was left of manufacturing employment fall by 19 to 35 percent between 1996 and 2006.  More recently, these states bade goodbye to an additional 1.8 million jobs between September 2008 and November 2009 alone.

Behind this massive and ongoing exodus of jobs is the central reality that an average North Carolina garment worker makes about $446 per week, while his or her counterpart in Bangladesh commands only $64 each month.  Although Texas and Virginia are the only southern states where earnings of the average worker reach the national norm (in Mississippi and Arkansas workers fall short by more than 20 percent), in global terms the South has long since become a relatively high-wage region.  Yet long-term policies that consistently put the interests of the employer ahead of those of the state or community have left it with a workforce and infrastructure generally ill-suited for any but low-wage industry.

For its part, China has been relatively quicker to understand the importance of improving both infrastructure, and in some respects, education.  Educational advances, however, have helped to fuel a dramatic rise in worker expectations that now puts China at a distinct disadvantage in attracting and retaining industries at the bottom of the current wage and skills pyramid.  Countries like Bangladesh may stand to benefit in the short run from an influx of employers who find the prospect of paying decidedly sub-China wages irresistible, but short is clearly the operative term here, for its severe deficiencies in education, energy, and transportation cannot be remedied overnight, and although enough of its workers have already raised enough of a clamor that the monthly minimum wage has just been almost doubled, they are quick to point out that it remains less than half that of China.

Suffice it to say, today’s warp speed changes in technology and production requirements now afford less-advanced nations a much narrower window of opportunity to make the most of industrial expansion than Southern states and communities once enjoyed—and all too frequently squandered.  It is expecting a great deal to think that people in regions so far removed both geographically and culturally may learn from the South’s experience when so many Southerners themselves clearly have not.

Spartanburg ‘s massive BMW plant and an equally imposing Mercedes facility in Tuscaloosa may seem to suggest that huge tax exemptions and promises of substantially lower labor costs still represent viable long-term global development strategies, but the ultimate fruits of such an approach are more likely to be discerned elsewhere, in the hundreds of shuttered factories and withering towns whose  mortgaged futures have now gone even further south or east, leaving behind former workers who are frequently too old either  to learn a new skill or to pull up stakes and move and generally too lacking in  education to have much prospect where they are.

james_cobb_head.jpgMembers of this abandoned Southern proletariat may still live far better than the average Bangladeshi can imagine, but their shattered self-esteem and dashed hopes are surely at some level a universal indication of what to expect when economic development is allowed to become an end in itself rather than the means to a developed society.

James C. Cobb

James C. Cobb is Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia. He is the author of “Globalization and the American South” (Georgia, 2005). His new book, The South and America since World War II, will be published in November by Oxford University Press.

Reposted with permission from the History News Network.

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