Human Buggy Whips

October 11, 1994|By JOHN BRAIN

:TC London Fog -- the nationally famous raincoat company with deep roots in Maryland -- is closing down two plants at Williamsport and Hancock, putting 375 employees out of work. In Baltimore, union workers voted to take a pay cut to keep jobs open for 220 workers out of 270 now employed. The Baltimore plant will close for three months -- laying off workers -- while equipment is transferred from the closed plants.

So it goes. But raincoats are not buggy whips; everyone wears them. The trouble is that most of the clothes sold in America today are not made in America, and of those that are, most are made with imported fabrics. The unions run ads in vain urging Americans to buy American, but we continue to shop for the best value, and the competition is intense. The problem is not that our Made in America products are of poor quality -- they're among the best -- but that our workers earning only $7 to $8 an hour are paid several times more than workers in China or Taiwan.

Welcome to the Global Market, which imports third-world

standards of living for American workers.

Today almost no one advocates protectionism -- charging import duties to keep foreign imports expensive and protect American jobs. We know that taxing imports would result in taxes on American exports which would also put our workers out of work. Today workers are on their own, protected by weakened unions that can only urge them to take a pay cut to go on working.

Anyone not familiar with Baltimore would think London Fog to be one of those classy British imports, like Burberry. For years the company cultivated a phony-toney image, even though London Fag raincoats were home-grown. So it's ironic that this phony import has now become a genuine import -- not from Manchester or Birmingham but from Shanghai or Seoul, where workers are glad to earn any wage that keeps them alive.

Not so very long ago the textile workers of Manchester and Birmingham lost their jobs when U.S. manufacturers found they could replicate British-quality clothes in American factories, first in New England, then moving south where labor was cheaper and unorganized, and now abroad where wages are lower still.

No use crying. Business is not philanthropy. It makes money for stockholders, and if profits fall, they invest elsewhere. That's capitalism, the American Way, contrasted with socialism that aims to put workers first but often just doesn't work. By and large, the free market does a better job sorting out supply and demand, and bottom-up entrepreneurs win out over top-down government planning. When workers lose their jobs, that's tough, but it's the price paid for cheap goods and market freedom.

So what's the answer? The pat answer is ''work smarter, not harder.'' Sell the world the high-tech products we make so well, the chips and planes, the infotech and bioengineering products for which our industries are famous.

But there are two problems. One is that London Fog workers can't just switch to high-tech. Their education was geared to the 19th-century industrial revolution, semi-skilled and labor-intensive, and few will upgrade to state-of-the-art anything. Another is that modern industries use far fewer employees, and today manufacturing is increasingly automated and computerized. There's no way infotech and bioscience can ever employ all the redundant work force of a London Fog or a Beth Steel. For modern companies, competitiveness means eliminating jobs, not creating them. Remember the telephone company with its banks of switchboard operators? Today they all fit in a black box, and their workroom echoes with the tattle of telemarketers.

Raincoats may not be buggy whips, but workers are. A hundred years ago the horse was still the workhorse of America, before cars and tractors took over. Today the horse population is a fraction of what it was. But at least we could choose to breed or not breed horses. So is population control the answer? Marketers dread shrinking markets, but what use are jobless populations with no money to spend? Must we become inured to vast populations of jobless confined to ghettos and prisons?

I'd like to believe education is the answer. Retool and retrain. Or disarm and restrain. Either way, change is painful.

John Brain is a Baltimore writer.

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