September 16, 1996 in Nation/World

America: Who Stole The Dream U.S. Helping Foreign Rivals Take Our Jobs Rose Growers Among Businesses Nearly Wiped Out By Trade Policies

Donald L. Barlett And James B. Steele Philadelphia Inquirer
 

Second in a series

Look at almost any household item you buy today and note where it was made. The hammer and screwdriver in the garage were manufactured in China. The notebook on the desk is from Indonesia. The windshield wipers on the car were made in Mexico.

In your closet, the Bugle Boy jeans came from Nicaragua. The Speedo running shorts were made in China and Malaysia. The Reeboks in Thailand and Indonesia. The Ralph Lauren Chaps sweatshirt in Pakistan. The Starter official U.S. Olympic baseball cap - inscribed “Bringing America Together” - was made in the Dominican Republic.

The great American leisure-time uniform: sweatshirt, blue jeans, baseball cap, sneakers. All made off-shore: All American jobs lost.

As a result of the way Washington has handled international trade for the last three decades, industry after industry in America has been hammered.

Few pitched battles have marked this war. Rather, it is a series of skirmishes that, except for a celebrated battle or two over autos, rarely attracts much attention.

After the American worker, the biggest loser in this war has been the small-business owner. Unlike

multinational corporations that have closed factories in the United States and shifted production abroad to take advantage of cheap labor, small companies seldom have that option.

It is these businesses, employing a few to a few dozen workers, that are being squeezed out. Individually, they barely register a blip on the economic indicators. Taken together, they provide a livelihood for millions.

Unlike multinational corporations, they have scant access to the people in Congress who write the laws and little influence in the White House. With few exceptions, small businesses’ appeals for help go unheard when imports of competing products from low-wage countries begin flooding the United States.

To ardent free-traders, the collapse of domestic industries - apparel, stainless steel flatware, shoes - was inevitable, a case of cheaper foreign products replacing those made in a country where wages, benefits and living standards are higher.

It was inevitable only because the people in Washington have created an unequal playing field.

Contrary to the notion that government is powerless to affect economic forces, government action - or inaction - can and does change the destiny of American businesses and families.

Sometimes, though, Washington does get involved - “on behalf of” foreign competitors. Just ask the people who grow roses in this country.

Twenty years ago, a bouquet of long-stemmed roses more than likely came from a greenhouse in the United States.

Today, most roses sold in this country are grown on the high plateau outside Bogota, Colombia. And many of those American greenhouses are out of business.

What happened? The most common explanation is that Colombia merely exploited certain natural advantages to corner the market.

Not quite.

Colombia’s strongest advantage was not climate, energy costs or even cheap labor. It was the U.S. government. Colombia began growing flowers for export in the 1960s. The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), the arm of the State Department that is assigned to encourage economic growth among poor nations, provided technical assistance to the Colombian growers.

Experts funded by the U.S. government helped Colombian growers cultivate their crops and create a distribution network to get the flowers to market.

AID decided that Colombia should “diversify and develop other exports,” so it channeled foreign-aid dollars to encourage the growth of fresh-cut flowers and other industries.

Thus, U.S. taxpayers helped pay the start-up costs for an industry that eventually would undermine one of America’s own.

Once Colombia’s flower industry was on its feet, the State Department made certain that the roses could be imported into this country free of high tariffs.

At the time, the United States, Western Europe and Japan were the world’s largest markets for fresh-cut flowers. But Europe and Japan, to protect their own producers, essentially closed their borders to imports.

So the Colombian growers focused on the United States. as the place to send their flowers.

In 1971, one million rose stems were imported, mostly from Colombia. That represented just two-tenths of 1 percent of U.S. sales.

By 1995, imports had climbed to 752 million stems, giving foreign growers control of the American market - 66 percent of all rose sales.

U.S. rose growers - whose profits plummeted as they tried to compete with the cheap imports - did not simply sit and watch it happen. Although they might as well have.

Beginning in the 1970s, the floral industry filed a series of complaints with U.S. trade agencies. In most of these cases, the U.S. government sided with Colombian exporters, saying that U.S. growers were not at risk.

As you might expect, U.S. growers have been going out of business or have switched production to other flowers. The Pittsburgh Cut Flower Co., which will observe its 100th anniversary in 1998, once had 15 acres of greenhouses at Bakerstown and Zelienople, near Pittsburgh.

But no more.

Unable to compete with the cheaper Colombian roses, Pittsburgh Cut Flower closed its greenhouses in 1991 and went from 140 workers to 35.

While Colombian imports have idled American rose growers, they have made Miami International the busiest airport for international cargo in the United States.

Every day, huge 747s loaded with long-stemmed roses touch down around the clock. Big importers employ many temporary workers during peak periods to supplement full-time employees, unloading and reloading cargo.

Most of the jobs involve warehouse work - one of the principal low-tech, low-paid occupations that will characterize the import-based American economy of the 21st century.

When domestic rose growers have sought tariffs or quotas on Colombian flowers, South Florida politicians invariably claim that thousands of jobs would be jeopardized.

Without a doubt, the imports have created jobs. But most of them are not in South Florida.

They are in rural Colombia, where an estimated 100,000 people cultivate roses and other flowers.

They work for 65 cents an hour - or less.

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