Monday, July 18, 2005

Recruiting Woes

The AP recently reported that the Army National Guard missed its recruiting goal by about 14% in June - the ninth straight month of shortfalls – and is nearly 19,000 soldiers below its authorized strength.

In a statement issued with the report, the Army said: "The recruiting environment remains difficult in terms of economic conditions and alternatives." That’s a euphemism for the fact that war machines rely on high unemployment, so the poorest of the poor (a growing demographic) will have no alternative but to sign up to kill and be killed. Oddly enough, the one indicator in our so-called economic recovery that has not edged up is employment: productivity is up, corporate profits are way up, but more American jobs move abroad every day and higher education costs move farther out of reach, leaving more American workers unable to find work that pays a livable wage.

Under these economic conditions, with so few alternatives, the courage of those who are daily resisting incessant recruitment pressure is even more profound.

The Army acknowledged the heavy use of National Guard troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but said the service is ahead of its goals in retaining soldiers who have the option to get out: "We have folks that are coming back from long periods of time in Iraq and Afghanistan who are reenlisting."

Unfortunately, they too are now economically forced into the war machine, because the National Guard is supposed to be a part-time commitment for people who have civilian jobs or own their own businesses. After two or three years of deployment overseas, many have lost their jobs and watched their businesses fail. They have little choice but to re-enlist if they want their families to eat.

For the Bush Administration hawks, the best scenario for the next few years is worsening “economic conditions” and even more limited “alternatives,” driving more warm bodies to boot camp and beyond. Maybe that's why they keep calling for permanent tax cuts for the rich, gutted social and educational programs, and harsh bankruptcy laws.

Economic Dualism

I’m really tired of Thomas Friedman and other economists setting up the debate as an either-or choice to the world’s countries: join the modern globalized economy by offering corporations low-wage, long-hour, unprotected workers while (maybe) giving the workers some health care or education, or stagnate like Germany, France and America, where workers have fought for and won higher wages, shorter work-weeks, and (maybe) some vacation, health care or education – all of which are now being eroded by the competitive race to the bottom.

These policy wonks are making a basic assumption that the world’s people are not required to accept: that the purpose of human labor is to maximize shareholder profit for corporations, regardless of the cost in human suffering and environmental destruction. An equally valid assumption that would lead to entirely different global, national and regional economic policies, is that the purpose of human labor is to meet human needs for goods and services like food, shelter, health care, education and clean energy, by compensating the people who provide those goods and services for their time and effort. That’s not how it is; it’s how it could be. But such a course must be explicitly chosen by workers as citizens.


If you have clothes marked “Made in” Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras or Nicaragua, or a job, then the Central American Free Trade Agreement touches your life. The Senate passed CAFTA recently, and the House will take it up later this month. CAFTA is strongly supported by the Bush Administration, which has once again suppressed evidence contradicting its own position.

In preparation for CAFTA debate in Congress, the U.S. Labor Department commissioned a study of labor practices in Central America. The non-profit International Labor Rights Fund (http://www.laborrights.org/) won the contract, and prepared a 400-page report, submitting it in early 2004. The ILRF reported that many Central American countries continue to suppress union organizing, use child labor and commit other serious labor violations; although there are laws against such practices, enforcement is minimal. The Labor Department refused to allow ILRF to publish the study for more than a year, while Rep. Sander Levin (D-Michigan) worked to get it released through the Freedom of Information Act.

America already has bilateral trade agreements with these countries, with stronger provisions supporting workers’ rights than CAFTA’s provisions. Like NAFTA, CAFTA is designed to weaken the power of workers and strengthen corporations, forcing American workers to compete with low-paid laborers in poor countries with weak labor and environmental standards in a “race to the bottom.”

We are capable of finding ways to protect both American and foreign workers and start a race toward a decent living for people in all countries. The question is not: “How can corporations maximize shareholder profit?” The real questions are: “What do people need, and how can we fairly compensate the people who provide those goods and services (like food, shelter, health care and education) for their time and effort?”