Workers need new strategy for future

The preservation of more than 800 Hoosiers’ jobs restores their hope and eases their worries going into 2017. For most working-class folks, such peace of mind is a daily goal.

A deal struck between the state of Indiana and Carrier Corp. — brokered by President-elect Donald Trump — led the heating-and-cooling company to keep open its plant on Indianapolis’ west side. The company got $7 million in taxpayer-funded breaks to stay in Indiana. Trump and his vice president-elect, Hoosier Gov. Mike Pence, announced the agreement at a celebratory visit to the factory.

The deal alters the company’s original plan. In February, a Carrier official dispassionately informed gathered employees inside the plant that local operations would be moving to Mexico to cut costs. Instead of 1,400 jobs going south of the border, now only 600 will move there.

Most likely, the action allowed Carrier to protect an asset much larger than the $65 million it expected to save by paying cheap wages to Mexican workers. Carrier’s parent corporation, United Technologies, has $5.6 billion worth of contracts with the federal government. By keeping the Indy plant, UT averted a feud with the incoming president and probably secured its more lucrative cash cow, the federal contracts.

Beyond the wheeling and dealing, the affect upon real people matters significantly.

Carrier worker T.J. Bray attended that stunning February meeting. After Trump, Pence and Carrier’s corporate honchos explained the new deal Thursday, a relieved Bray told a reporter, “I don’t have to worry about how I am going to feed my family and my children now. Today is a victory for the little people.”

Of course, the demographic Bray humbly called “the little people” includes most Americans earning a paycheck. Two-thirds of the adult civilian labor force, between ages 18 and 64, is made up of workers without a college degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Working class folks face uncertainty in the changing job market, and Thursday’s event spotlighted their dilemma.

This high-profile situation, thrust onto the national stage when Carrier’s move became a presidential campaign topic, exemplifies hundreds of similar predicaments around the country. Manufacturing employed 17 million Americans in 2000. The number has dwindled to 12 million since. Incentives and eased regulations may not be enough to stop that trend. And while scores of U.S. plants plan to relocate to Mexico, China and other foreign lands — including UT’s Huntington facility and others in Indiana — $3-an-hour foreign laborers are far from the lone source of competition for American workers.

MIT researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee studied the reasons behind a puzzling dynamic of the American economy — productivity has risen robustly since 2000, while total employment has grown more slowly. Throughout the 20th century, those two factors moved up or down in parallel fashion. What changed? Technology. Automation, robotics and digital gadgetry — think driver-less cars — has spread.

Median incomes stagnate. Job numbers climb, but slower than in past generations. “People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up,” Brynjolfsson told Technology Review in 2013.

Trump’s dramatic Indy intervention, his threats to impose high tariffs on companies shifting operations abroad and his vow to eliminate corporate regulations will not stem the increase of computerized labor, from production-line work to clerical and accounting duties. Those realities will require more thoughtful, less flashy 21st-century remedies.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.