Thank You Berry Much

mitch cahn thank you berry much“Buy American” proposal attached to the house federal stimulus bill has resulted in a predictable uproar from Republicans and their patrons, captains of industry with vested interests in globalization. The two main arguments against the amendment negate each other:

1. Our trading partners (read: China) will respond to domestic preference policies with their own protectionism, shutting out US exports.
2. Domestic pricing is not competitive with imports (read: China) and this policy will cost taxpayers dearly in these lean times.

Countries like China already have protectionism: permitting forced labor, child labor, and human rights violations in the workplace enables its manufacturers to be global low cost producers in labor intensive industries. That’s why US manufacturers can’t even win bids in our own country without government interference. And if we can’t win on our own turf, our trading partners don’t have to bother with legislating protectionism.

This Buy American Amendment is simply an extension of the Berry Amendment, which requires the US military to give procurement preference to domestic suppliers. It’s a 75 year old law which has evolved through several wars, depressions, recessions, and expansions, and now, in practice, resembles the mechanisms proposed by anti sweatshop labor activists.

All contractor addresses are listed and complaints about contractors are thoroughly investigated. Here’s the catch, and here’s why it works: the complaints do not come from abused workers, but from losing bidders who insist that the winning bidder could not be manufacturing domestically under US labor laws. The burden of proof is on the losing bidder. This system has evolved to be self policing in this way.

The Berry Amendment has exceptions for a long list of “qualifying countries”, all of which happen to have high labor standards. It’s a safe bet for us, because of all the countries which protect human rights in the workplace, the USA has become the low labor cost producer in many industries. Oh yes I did just say that–it’s true. Canada just winked at us in their rear view mirror. But if this mechanism is codified to encourage human rights in the workplace, the Berry Amendment would be a human rights law, not a protectionist law.

After 75 years of amendments weakening the Berry Amendment, last year the government expanded the Berry Amendment outside the military–to Homeland Security. This proposal expands it even further, to the Transportation Safety Administration. If new legislation like minimum wage increases and the Employee Free Choice Act pass, then extending the Berry Amendment throughout the Federal Government and encouraging states to adopt it will be the fastest way to prevent our government from facilitating further human rights abuses.

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