Trade affects job outlook

By John Perry Published: December 15, 2004
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Economists tell us, with mathematical certainty, that America and the world are better because of Mark Wedge's bad luck.

Open trade means countries can make the things where they have the comparative advantage and then trade for everything else. Trading partners shift resources to their most productive use. More things get made more cheaply. The world, economists say, is richer for it.

However, Wedge isn't richer. He and the other Americans who watched as equipment they once operated was crated for shipment to places like Mexico and Indonesia are considerably worse off.

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Downfall of manufacturing leaves Bethany man without work


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Mark Wedge talks about cutting expenses

Mark Wedge talks about losing his job

Mark Wedge talks about finding a low-paying job


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MARK WEDGE

Born: Haverhill, Mass.

Age: 46

Education: Bachelor's degree in business administration, Southern Nazarene University.

Occupation: Unemployed.

Family: Divorced and living with his 21-year-old son. He also has four older stepchildren, whom he considers his own.


MARK WEDGE MONTHLY BUDGET

Estimated expenses:

Rent: $459
Telephone/Internet: $60
Groceries: $170
* Medication: $45
Medical bill payments: $40
Car insurance: $61
Set aside for taxes: $130
Gasoline: $80
Church donation: $80

Total: $1,125
Unemployment benefits: $1,313

Bills paid by son, William:

Utilities: $100-$170
Cable: $70
br Balance: $188

*Wedge has eliminated $185 in other medications and now takes only his blood pressure medication.


THE NUMBERS

34,661: 20 percent of Oklahoma manufacturing jobs lost, 2000 through 2003.

481: Mass layoffs reported in Oklahoma, January 2000 through July 2004.

72,887: Employees affected by mass layoffs.

$3,091: Average monthly earnings for Oklahoma mainufacturing workers, first quarter 2004.

$2,221: Average manufacturing new hire earnings.

$1,817: Average monthly earning for Oklahoma retail workers, first quarter 2004.

$1,277: Average retail new hire earnings.

He understands the economics of his situation. He's taken the introductory economics course where you learn about the law of comparative advantage and the benefits of trade.

But as the Dec. 25 cutoff of his unemployment benefits approaches, Wedge has yet to find a more productive use for his labor. And while sitting in the living room of his Warr Acres apartment, watching movies on cable television paid for by his 21-year-old son, Wedge can't help thinking that something essential -- something not accounted for by the economists' mathematical formulations -- has been lost in the global trade, along with his $20-an-hour union job, good benefits and ample opportunities for overtime.

"Manufacturing to me was always one of the major backbones of our country," he said. "And they sustained the service jobs as well as the high-end jobs. They're the people who gave you the clout to go out and purchase a lot of stuff."

Wedge's son also pays the electric bill -- $180 in the hottest summer month -- and sometimes his son buys groceries from the $6.25 an hour he earns as an assistant manager at a pizza restaurant.

Wedge is a big man. Strong. Hard-working all his life. He is the son and grandson of factory workers; born in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, where the first textile mills of America's infant industry harnessed the steady flow of the Merrimack River to turn their looms.

His father went to work in the 1950s as a machinist at Western Electric's Merrimack Valley Works in North Andover, when manufacturers employed nearly 30 percent of American workers. The plant at its peak employed about 12,000 people, making it one of the largest in a region of big factories. His two best high school friends were Cory Valliere and Rick McPhee. Valliere's father and both of McPhee's parents worked at the plant.

His father's paycheck comfortably supported Wedge and his sister, mother and grandmother.

A year after graduating high school, Wedge was working part time at Sears -- $2.75 an hour, a quarter over minimum wage -- and taking business classes, mostly to please his mother. When Western Electric announced it was hiring, he left Sears and landed a full-time job making circuit boards.

"And you know the thing is, you got on there, you got a job till you retire," he said.

That year -- 1977 -- manufacturing provided 22 percent of American jobs.

Two years later, Wedge transferred to a new Western Electric plant in Richmond, Va., where winters were more mild and the scenery more green. He married the sister of a co-worker. She already had four children, and the couple had a child of their own. At St. John's Catholic Church, Wedge became organizer of the annual carnival. He began saving for a house.

Life was proceeding as he expected, exactly as it had for his father before him.

The big one
In 1958, the year Wedge was born, Western Electric opened in Oklahoma City. The company was then the nation's 10th-largest manufacturer and the exclusive supplier of telephone equipment to its parent company, AT&T.

Construction on the $35 million, 1.2 million square foot plant at Reno and Council Road would be completed in 1961. However, Western Electric already had begun training and production at a small pilot plant leased from the industrial authority.

The plant built the switches needed to convert the telephone system to universal dialing so anyone could dial anywhere in the United States without an operator.

At its peak in 1970, Western Electric was the city's largest private employer with nearly 9,500 workers.

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