Talking China around the Kitchen Table

Little Rock            Sitting around the kitchen table last night with my “outlaws” as they sometimes call themselves out of the blue China was on the agenda.

            One was just in from Fort Worth where he was superintending the construction of a music store for a Little Rock construction company.  He related a story from his sheetrock and studs supplier he had hear a couple of days before.  The fella was telling him that if he had had to bid the job again the price would be double for the metal studs that have replaced 2×4’s on construction jobs everywhere.  In fact he would not know how to bid the job, because no one could move the production because “China was buying all of the raw materials.”  The red-hot heat of the Chinese economic growth had surpassed the supply of steel and related products at all levels. 

You could read it in the Economist or the Journal, but I could hear it around this table in Little Rock.

            Another worked in a factory in the low mountain Ozarks country of southern Missouri on the line for Briggs & Stratton producing small motors for the market.  In her plant the company was shipping motors and parts to China for assembly and then bringing them back to Missouri for final packing and shipping.  For Briggs & Stratton to pay the freight from the U.S. to China it was all about labor costs.  Tears came into her eyes as she told the daily tale of opening a bucket of motors from China and seeing smudged handprints on the top of the package.  She often compared the handprints against her own.  She admitted her hands might not have been dainty, but she could not keep from believing that the tiny handprints she saw almost every day had to be from children.

            The other was now at another small plant with 60 workers about 70 miles north of Little Rock that supplied plastic parts for a Maytag plant almost across the street.  Before that he had worked with a cousin reselling auto glass that they bought by the container load from — where? — Of course, China!  They could undercut other glass by as much as 80% sometimes.  

            It wasn’t China but the next one around the table worked as a supervisor for EDS handling Medicare billings on a huge state contract in Arkansas and said that it had become routine at EDS — remember the old Ross Perot founded company, that’s Ross Perot “of the great sucking sound” of NAFTA in the Clinton election — for a 1000 jobs here, 2000 there to be outsourced to India.

            I don’t know whom President Bush talks to or listens to anymore, but there is no way to miss these conversations among hard working people.  They are scratching their heads at the sweating end of the American economic machine.  China and India are a million miles away, but there are no answers to their matter of fact comments and unspoken questions about the future when they are sitting close at home.


Signs of Crisis in Corrections

Grady, Arkansas            Driving through the Southern Arkansas delta in the spring is a treat.  Trees are still working on putting on leaves and a bit naked from the winter, but the azaleas are blooming, setting off the green shooting up everywhere in the fields.  Tractors are pulling out from the side roads with huge chemical tanks to spray the long acres of dirt being prepared for planting. 

            I’ve been on this highway hundreds of times furrowing my own road back and forth between New Orleans and Little Rock for many years.  Modestly, I would have to admit that I know this highway well.  There are few stretches where I could not sight a landmark carved in personal experience.

            Not eighty miles below Little Rock with the Arkansas River right by you is the famous, and often notorious, Cummins Prison.  A huge, sprawling facility in the midst of flat, fertile land farmed in every season by the prisoners themselves in the constant, but futile search to achieve a legislative mandate somewhere between self-sufficiency and rehabilitation.

            There was always a small sign along Highway 65 that spoke volumes and said “Beware of Hitchhikers.”  It was never more than a short distance from the huge sign identifying the Cummins Correction Center itself, and of course the prison in all of its glory was right there, big as day.  One could never really sort out if the warning on hitchhikers — a great euphemism for escapees — was a stab at humor or some symbolic Arkansas irony, but everyone recognized it as a classic redundancy as it stated the obvious. 

            This year there was an even larger sign planted in the dirt past the nameplate of the prison.  Essentially in a lot more words it was a “help wanted” sign.  The turnover of corrections officers, prison guards, whatever you might want to call them simply could not be slowed.  It was a hard job, a bad job with low status and lousy pay and had been for years.  But, this old prison, like many new ones built throughout the south and southwest, for a long time had represented economic development in its own warped way.  Fellas could draw a shift, while keeping the homeplace and family alive in the country, while tending the land at the same time.  With hard work you could almost make it. 

            We knew about this problem firsthand, because we had an union organizing program with Local 100 at this prison and others for years, and never could stabilize the chapters because of the immense turnover of workers.  The prisoners may have been in for the long haul, but the workers were here today, gone tomorrow.  Folks were voting with their feet about these prisons and the conditions for workers there and in doing so defeating the whole logic of planting prisons in the countryside where one might have a captive market for labor, just as one had captives themselves. 

            The new sign — no matter how large — is a sign of a huge crisis coming in corrections on both sides of the bars.