Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Around the Kitchen Table -- Job's a Job, Isn't It?

Job's a Job, Isn't It?
By: Jim Lardner, Demos

"The New South is not so different from the Old South in one respect - its aversion to unions. In the Southern Auto Corridor, which follows Interstate 65 from southern Alabama up through Kentucky, starting wages run as much as $5 an hour below the $20 Michigan average, and the benefits gap is even bigger. Workers at Hyundai's new plant in Montgomery, for example, pay $360 a year for health coverage that is free to their UAW counterparts. Nevertheless, the United Auto Workers has been unable to organize any of the eight plants built by foreign-owned automakers plants in the South. And some southern states use the words "right to work" as a marketing slogan.

'Policymakers in the South are interested first and foremost in reducing that unemployment rate,' says Ed Malecki, an economic development specialist on the faculty of Ohio State University. 'Part-time jobs will help them do that. Low-wage jobs will help them. They've never understood the concept of job quality. To them, a job is a job.' "

While most of the country complains of a slow or even a "jobless" recovery, jobs are comparatively plentiful below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and Texas were among the top ten states in employment growth for 2003 and 2004, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Florida recorded a two-year gain of 291,000 jobs -- more than a fifth of the figure for the nation as a whole.

If the number of new jobs is striking, so is the nature of some of those jobs.

A few decades ago, the big regional industries were textiles, furniture, and food-processing.

Now southerners work in state-of-the-art factories making microchips and biomedical products.

In Canton, Mississippi, former catfish farmers assemble Nissan's top-of-the-line Titan pickup truck.

In Durham, North Carolina, the grandchildren of tobacco farmers will soon be applying for work at a new Dell computer factory.

The biggest shift, though, is away from manufacturing, toward professional and service jobs.

Software engineers who check out CareerBuilder.com these days will find more opportunities in Virginia than in Microsoft's home state of Washington.

The mainstays of the Florida economy, alongside tourism, real estate and health care, include a thriving financial services industry, nourished by Miami's status as the unofficial banking capital of the Caribbean.

Once the South was known for protectionism and cultural insularity.

The distinction between a "foreign" and an "American" car has pretty much disappeared in Alabama, where the Big Three automakers are Mercedes, Honda, and Hyundai.

Immigrants from India and Russia have flocked to the Research Triangle area of North Carolina and its computer and biotech firms.

Atlanta has a Latino population of more than a quarter of a million.

Newcomers are arriving from places like Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit as well, and the latest crop of transplanted Rust Belters includes - for the first time ever - large numbers of African-Americans settling in the South by choice.

From one end of the region to the other, politicians and business leaders have plenty to boast about.

Inc. Magazine recently rated Atlanta the best of all American cities to do business in.

Nashville finished first in similar rankings by Relocation and Business Expansion magazines.

Southern metropolises came away with six of the top ten spots in the Milken Institute's list of "best performing cities."

In some communities, though, citizens' groups are beginning to question the performance yardsticks.

"Growth has left us sprawled and divided - one community from another, one business sector from the next," the Tampa Tribune recently observed.

"It has also given us an illusion of prosperity, disguising a vulnerable economy that depends on a comparatively undereducated and underpaid work force.

This, in turn, has left us with a tax base that barely supports our basic needs for things such as new roads and strong schools."

Many northern Floridians feel that their economy has become dangerously dependent on call centers and banking back offices - businesses that don't pay very well to begin with, and tend to pick up and leave when they spot an opportunity to reduce their costs even further.

The electronics industry has been known to behave the same way.

In North Carolina, Governor Mike Easley and legislative leaders have taken flak for showering Dell with tax concessions worth an estimated quarter of a billion dollars, in return for a factory where the average annual salary will be $28,000.

"Policy makers seem to have heard the word 'computer' and lost all high brain functions," one local resident complained in a letter to the Carolina Journal.

Many development experts regard these deals as penny-wise and pound-foolish, undermining the skills and infrastructure that, they say, are the true underpinning of a strong economy.

From that point of view, the South is still emerging from its longtime condition as an economic backwater, and the best things happening today can be traced to long-term forces, including the building of the interstate highway system, investment in higher education, and the invention and spread of air conditioning.

But elected officials and business leaders tend to think in shorter time frames, which leads them into a habit of cutting deals with individual employers in what critics say are often sham competitions staged for the purpose of pitting one state against another.

The New South is not so different from the Old South in one respect - its aversion to unions.

In the Southern Auto Corridor, which follows Interstate 65 from southern Alabama up through Kentucky, starting wages run as much as $5 an hour below the $20 Michigan average, and the benefits gap is even bigger.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer


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