Editorial: China vs. the Blind
"What's remarkable about Chicago Lighthouse Industries isn't that it employs more than 40 people who are blind or visually impaired. Or even that those people work on assembly lines, producing and packaging 1,000 wall clocks and 1,600 nylon printer ribbons daily. No, what's truly remarkable about Chicago Lighthouse Industries is that a casual observer would be hard-pressed to tell that the efficient, highly skilled personnel on those assembly lines have any disability." So wrote senior editor John Sprovieri 4 years ago, in his report on how several companies had successfully accommodated disabled workers on their assembly lines.
Alas, The Wall Street Journal reports that the clock is ticking for the 99 year-old Chicago Lighthouse, as it becomes yet another U.S. company to face heavy competition from China. Over the years, Chicago Lighthouse employees have assembled printer ribbons, fluorescent light fixtures, hydraulic hoses and even pogo sticks. But the mainstay of its business has been clocks, and the biggest customer for clocks by far has been the federal government. From a peak of 120,000 clocks in 1992, production has dropped to 104,000 last year. Once the nonprofit had virtually 100 percent of the federal government clock market; now it's doing well if its share is 60 percent.
Even though the sightless employees at Chicago Lighthouse earn only $8.50 an hour and can assemble a clock in 50 seconds, they're finding it difficult to compete with offshore labor. In the past 4 years, according to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. imports of wall clocks have grown 24 percent, most coming from China. Although sales at Chicago Lighthouse have grown a bit recently, they are still far below historic levels, and the workforce is now down to 20.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey McCracken, writing in The Buffalo News recently, cited a Detroit Free Press survey showing that about 10,000 autoworkers in the United States and Canada are getting full wages and benefits not to work. All are hourly workers on long-term layoff from the traditional Big Three automakers and their biggest supplier, Delphi Corp., and are in so-called "jobs banks." The jobs banks have been around since the 1984 UAW contract, he says, but pinning down the exact number of workers in the jobs banks isn't easy. The automakers don't like to broadcast that they are paying people not to work, and the unions and the workers don't like the negative publicity either. According to McCracken, some UAW workers say they like being paid for not working, while others say they find it frustrating and embarrassing.
This is not to disparage the autoworkers in jobs banks, nor the UAW. It does, however, seem a bit incongruous for laid-off autoworkers to be drawing pay for doing nothing, while the blind workers at Chicago Lighthouse are struggling to compete with China.