August 4, 2004

Globalization at Fourth and Broadway

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- "Globalization" is so fuzzy word, I need to visualize it residing at a specific address in order to understand it. For me, that address in Rochester is the corner of 4th Street and Broadway, smack downtown.

The shops and buildings on the four corners of that intersection tell the whole story of globalization in a nutshell Ð its possibilities and its pitfalls, the bounties it brings to our community but also the challenges.

On the southwest corner you have Rice & Spice, an Indian grocery and deli where customers line up six deep on late workday afternoons -- Mayo Clinic and downtown office workers picking up the latest curries direct from New Delhi, rubbing shoulders with Indian housewives dressed in colorful saris.

Across the street on the northwest corner there is Tejano Western Wear, a one-year-old Mexican boutique that offers imported fashions ranging from sombreros and striped blankets to snakeskin boots, string ties, leather vests and tooled-silver belt buckles.

More Winners

Catty-corner from Tejano Western Wear is the Rochester location of Rocco Altobelli's, the well-established Minnesota chain of beauty salons whose name bespeaks an immigrant success story somewhere in its past.

Across from Altobelli's on the northeast corner is a building that speaks as much about the challenges of globalization as the opportunities -- the Union Labor Center -- home to a half-dozen local unions including the Teamsters, the UAW and those unions representing laborers, painters and carpenters.

There are more winners than losers from globalization, they say, but tell that to a factory worker whose job was exported to Tijuana. Whether in terms of lost jobs or the weakened state of unions caused by abundant overseas labor, every labor union today is coping with the pressures of globalization, often more than any other economic trend.

The northeast corner of 4th and Broadway reminds us to pause every time we hear a new economic development in the state being justified on the grounds that it will "make Minnesota more globally competitive."

Painful Dislocations

Bit by bit -- family farm by factory by retail shop, pine forest by river by prairie, city bus line by job zone by biotech corridor -- our allegiance to this mantra is utterly transforming the economy, the culture and the landscape of our state. But even when we succeed on purely economic terms in our global competition, are the overall changes to our state positive ones?

Each of us sees the changes differently. A union man sees "corporate globalism" pushing wages lower, destroying jobs and forcing painful dislocations. A medical researcher sees her job enhanced because her colleagues, immigrants from Japan, teach her skills that increase her expertise. A farmer grits his teeth and plants more row crops, which are bad for the land but good for his pocketbook at least in the short run.

Success as well as failure can rend a society. Too-sudden and too-great changes can open social and political vacuums that demagogues and tyrants can exploit. In China, which has been growing at more than 10 percent a year for several years, the government's biggest worry now is that the poor and the unemployed, whom the boom has left behind, will trigger a violent revolt.

The writer William Greider has described globalization as "a wondrous new machine, strong and supple, a machine that reaps as it destroys. As it goes, it throws off enormous mows of wealth and bounty while it leaves behind great furrows of wreckage."

How to Compete

There is a saying, "You become what you resist." Thus, if we compete in the wrong way with China, such as by joining an endless race to the bottom on prices, we'll inevitably become more like China and our other "race to the bottom" competitors in our values and every other way.

So what is the right way to compete? By recollecting, as we slug it out in the global marketplace, that our ultimate competitive strength lies not in our low prices but in our high values -- of democracy, community, unity and equality.

At the corner of Fourth and Broadway, Rochester has become more like India and Mexico than ever before -- much to our benefit.

But only for some of us, that is. How do we make sure that every tenant at the intersection enjoys the rewards of globalization?

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report