Washington can exit the race to the bottom

‘Buy Clean and Buy Fair Washington Act’ would use our state tax dollars to support our labor, environmental values



(Dec. 8, 2020) — Washington state has an opportunity to set the stage for a more socially responsible use of its tax revenue in its future.

The proposed legislation is called the “Buy Clean and Buy Fair Washington Act.” The law would establish reporting requirements for suppliers of structural materials to state-funded public projects. The reporting would include various measures of working conditions of employees and an “environmental product declaration” on covered materials — essentially a nutrition label that explains how much carbon was created during a good’s production. Buy Clean and Buy Fair phases in the new rules over a period of years and creates a publicly accessible database to track our progress. Manufacturers with favorable labor and carbon measures would enjoy an advantage in the competition to supply Evergreen State projects.

It’s time to put Washingtonians’ tax dollars to work with businesses that share Washingtonians’ values. Workers must enjoy justice and dignity in their places of work — decent wages, benefits, and a safe workplace; businesses must also prioritize environmental responsibility and sustainability. Currently, when Washington state spends tax dollars, suppliers that exploit workers and the environment have a competitive advantage over those businesses that don’t. The Buy Clean and Buy Fair Washington Act levels the playing field for clean and responsible manufacturers by pushing the state to consider pollution and working conditions when purchasing materials for public projects.

Many folks agree with socially responsible public spending rules — Americans appreciate the tangible power of Buy American. In 2016, candidate Donald Trump capitalized on a variation of the popular concept to win the U.S. presidency — he was fond of saying things like “Buy American, hire American” because it made for good politics. However, despite four years of this rhetoric, manufacturing job creation has remained anemic.

Recently, our country has been made acutely aware of our threadbare manufacturing capacity. As the country approaches the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, we remain in desperate need of important medical equipment manufacturing. Inept government remains unable to meet the demand for medical-grade masks to protect healthcare workers and the public.

How did we get here? The United States was once the model for achieving highly productive industrial specialization. We enjoyed a national tax policy that rewarded capital investments in equipment and facilities to engage and encourage human know-how — engineering, trade skills, and hard, smart, efficient work. America rewarded work, education, talent, skill, and sound investments for a manufacturing economy that provided a shared prosperity. Over time, many Americans grew to take for granted these ever-improving conditions, believing they would fall to us as if subject to the laws of gravity.

By 1980, the American investment community decided to go “all-in” on a defund America plan. The plan would fully pit countries with advancing social safety nets, labor rights and environmental regulations, against the second and third world economies struggling to survive in a world increasingly dominated by free-market neo-liberalism. The “invisible hand” begged that, as if by a fiduciary requirement designed by Ayn Rand herself, the investor community look to countries and locations where workers are most vulnerable; the environment is most exploitable; and governments are most compliant or corruptible to the whims of investors.

The defund America plan, wittingly or unwittingly, has led to 40 years of deindustrializing America, and a now global race to the bottom that threatens our very existence.

Importing manufactured goods into America’s markets by way of this race to the bottom has come at a tremendous cost. There are 5 million fewer manufacturing jobs across the country than there were in 1997. These weren’t horse-drawn buggy makers caught in a technology shift — they were aluminum plants, tire makers, steel workers, textile mills, aerospace manufacturers, and paper makers that were kicked into the ditch to accommodate capital investments to produce these goods in low-wage, low-tax, poorly regulated, higher carbon footprint locations in other countries.

The Buy Clean and Buy Fair Washington Act does with state tax dollars what should be done with all tax dollars — city, county, state, and federal. We hope to advance more thoughtful dialogue in this country, not just pass innovative legislation for Washingtonians.

Policies like the Buy Clean and Buy Fair Washington Act are a small step in reversing the fallacy of our 40-plus year race to the bottom.

Nonetheless, Buy Clean and Buy Fair is a public policy that would be good for workers and good for the environment. It will signal to the market what we value — justice and dignity for workers, and serious, enforceable, rational protections of the environment. Let’s send a message to investors — the Evergreen State is exiting their race to the bottom.

Gaylan Z. Prescott is Director of USW District 12, comprised of 11 western states’ unions of the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union, AFL-CIO (USW).

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