Seattle Holds Lessons for the South


The South has borne the brunt of corporate globalization in the United States -- in job loss, stagnant wages and environmental degradation. Is the region's price of admission to the world's corporate games too high?


Going by geography, people in the South couldn't be more removed from events on the Pacific Northwest coast. But Southerners have every reason to be concerned about the "Battle of Seattle" which raged over the fate of the World Trade Organization and the global economy.

That's because the South, once thought of as an economic backwater, is arguably the most "globalized" region of the country today. And Southerners who care about working families, democracy and environmental health -- just like the citizens locked out of the WTO debates in Seattle -- are learning to question the corporate-driven agenda the global power-brokers have in store.

The truth is, the South has always played a key role in world trade, dating back to the days of King Cotton's reign. But it's only in the last two decades that leaders in Appalachia, the Carolinas and the Deep South have gone for broke in a quest to turn the South into a "global player" -- promising to deliver the region to prosperity by aggressively exporting overseas, and luring the barons of global industry to the region.

By some measures, playing the globalization game has paid off. World sales of Southern goods are at record levels. The South has also emerged as the nation's boom-belt for German and Asian firms seeking low-cost labor and less-stringent environmental laws. The region has drawn over half of all the foreign businesses that have moved to the U.S. in the 1990s, and today, one out of eight manufacturing employees in the South work for an overseas owner.

But the quest for world-class status has come at a high price. Governors now spend precious weeks crisscrossing the globe, handing out billions of dollars in "recruitment packages" to entice migrating multinationals to set up shop in their state.

Taxpayers have been the biggest losers of these high-stakes industry bidding wars. It's not uncommon for states to ante up $200 million or more to land a single plant -- budget-busting deals that are made behind closed doors, and often at the expense of schools and other social priorities.

International firms have brought some good work, although few mention that the wages some firms pay are about one-third of what they pay back home leading some German workers to refer to the U.S. South as "our Mexico."

Southern leaders say they're doing it for the jobs. And it's true, the international firms have brought some good work -- although few mention that the wages some firms (particularly German ones) pay are about one-third of what they pay back home (leading some German workers to refer to the U.S. South as "our Mexico.")

But the long-term picture -- of a region all too willing to sacrifice its human, natural and financial resources for quick-fix development -- is more troubling, and all too reminiscent of the low road to development prescribed for poorer nations by the WTO.

What's more, the South is learning that the globalization game is often a crap shoot that plays both ways. Globe-trotting corporations often have little loyalty to the region -- and in many areas, they are heading out of the South just as fast as they're coming in.

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that the South has accounted for over one-third of the U.S. jobs lost to NAFTA -- more than any other part of the country. Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas topped the list of states that have felt the pain of footloose factories abandoning their communities and moving to even more profitable Third World pastures.

In some cases, these are the same foreign firms that were coaxed to the South with lavish incentives only a decade ago.

In short, the South has seen first-hand the world envisioned by the WTO. And it has learned that playing the globalization game -- far from solving the region's economic ills -- has only left Southerners all the more vulnerable to the whims of corporate interests and closed-door deal-makers.

Southerners have a direct stake in seeing that the demands of the Seattle movement become reality, here and abroad: to bring democracy to the WTO and other "development" decision-making bodies; to set and enforce real labor, environmental and human rights standards; and to ensure that the fruits of global prosperity are shared by all.

Without fair trade and economic democracy, the world only has to look to the South to see the rigged rules and high costs of playing the globalization game.

Chris Kromm is editor of Southern Exposure magazine, published by the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, N.C., and writes on globalization in the U.S. South.

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