The Labor Prospect: Michigan Puts Outsourcing in Presidential Spotlight

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

In this July 12, 2013, photo an Outsource to Detroit banner from Galaxe.Solutions is seen on a Detroit building. 

Welcome to The American Prospect’s weekly roundup highlighting the best reporting and latest developments in the labor movement. 

(Compiled by Justin Miller—Edited by Harold Meyerson

A Renewed Focus on Outsourced Jobs

With the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal now before Congress, the outsourcing of jobs has once again become a hallmark issue in the presidential politics of both parties. The debates echo the controversies that divided Democrats during Bill Clinton’s presidency—and this time around, the debate has been joined in the Republican Party as well.

Throughout his rise to the top of the GOP presidential race, Donald Trump has masterfully courted the disillusioned white working class with a populist economic message that criticizes past trade deals and chastises American corporations for outsourcing jobs.

He has persistently called out food-giant Nabisco, air-conditioning manufacturer Carrier, and auto-manufacturer Ford, all for increasingly outsourcing jobs to Mexico. He has promised that a Trump presidency would be the most magnificent American jobs presidency the nation has ever seen, threatening to slap high tariffs on imported goods produced by U.S. companies that have moved abroad for cheap labor.

The debate over international trade has also taken center stage on the Democratic side as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have campaigned in Michigan, a state that offers harrowing proof that outsourcing can decimate local economies.

Sanders has honed his anti-trade deal message in Michigan, arguing that past trade deals like NAFTA had disastrous impacts on the state’s auto industry as manufacturers sought cheaper labor costs in Mexico. He believes that the TPP deal will be no different than past deals when it comes to hurting American workers.

That assertion is backed up by new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute that finds that trade deficits with TPP-member countries have killed more than one million American manufacturing jobs in 2015 alone—most prominently in the auto industry. Michigan alone lost more than 200,000 jobs because of those trade deficits, which at 5.12 percent of the state’s jobs, is the largest loss as a share of total employment in the country. Similar post-industrial states didn’t fare much better.

Battling attacks on her past support for trade deals, Clinton has also gone on the offensive, rolling out a new jobs platform and targeting Michigan with TV ads about outsourcing. She also premiered a new trade policy proposal at a Michigan campaign event last week that would give the government authority to take back tax incentive money from corporations that outsource jobs after benefiting from tax breaks, and offering new tax incentives for corporations that invest long-term in American industry.

While trying to tap into the resentment over outsourcing, however, Trump, Clinton, and Sanders have all been criticized for their past trade positions. As Buzzfeed News first uncovered, Trump wrote a blog post in 2005 saying that outsourcing jobs is “not always a terrible thing.” He’s also been called out for relying on overseas labor for various Trump Organization business ventures. 

Democratic frontrunner Clinton has also taken heat after video on Indian TV surfaced of her saying “I think there are advantages with it that have certainly benefited many parts of our country, and there are disadvantages that go to the need to, you know, improve the job skills of our own people.” That provoked a new rash of critiques that she has flip-flopped for political purposes.

Sanders, too, has been criticized—though more for the ramifications his anti-trade positions would have on the global poor. “Sanders has correctly recognized that freer trade with countries like China has hurt a subset of American workers (while benefiting others). As a result he opposes most efforts to open American markets to more international competition,” Zack Beauchamp writes for Vox. “There’s one big problem, according to development economists I spoke to: Free trade is one of the best tools we have for fighting extreme poverty.” It’s doubtful, however, that there’s even a small group of voters who believe an American president should seek to alleviate global poverty with trade policies that reduce incomes at home. 

The TPP deal has stirred the wrath of the labor movement, especially of the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers, which have seen their memberships decimated in the wake of previous free trade deals. Both unions have conspicuously withheld endorsements in the Democratic presidential contest (they are the largest unions not to endorse), possibly due to wariness of Clinton’s checkered trade record and a lack of rank-and-file support for her.

Pushing and Pulling on Right-to-Work

Anti-worker legislation remains on the upswing in Republican state legislatures across the country. After Democratic Governor Jay Nixon thwarted Missouri Republicans’ attempt to make the state right-to-work, the GOP is now pushing new anti-union bills. Both the Missouri House and Senate have passed legislation that would require public employee unions to obtain permission from their members annually to take out dues—a clear attempt at diminishing public-sector union membership rolls in the state. Though Governor Nixon is expected to veto the measure, both chambers passed the legislation with veto-proof majorities.

Conversely, a Michigan Democrat has proposed legislation that would allow workers to vote to undo right-to-work in their respective workplaces. If a majority of the bargaining unit supports an “all-union contract” then all employees covered by the union contract, including non-members, would once again be required to pay agency fees. The legislation is a tit-for-tat rebuttal of conservative attempts to pass right-to-work laws at a micro-level. Republican governors in states where Democratic-controlled legislatures have refused to enact right-to-work laws have called on right-wing localities to establish right-to-work counties in Kentucky and “zones” in Illinois, though both initiatives have run into legal challenges.


A handy review of where states currently stand on the minimum wage, and where action in 2016 is expected to take place.

Seeing further threats down the road, big business is rallying against Seattle’s new independent-contractor union law.

The federal government has filed two “groundbreaking” lawsuits addressing workplace discrimination based on workers’ sexual orientation.

Hillary Clinton has called for an end to a subminimum wage for tipped workers, which disproportionately hurts women workers and workers of color.

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