April 18, 2009

Mayor Virg Bernero was invited on CNN's Your Money to talk about how people are dealing with unemployment when it looks like there are no jobs coming back. I don't think Bernero's response was exactly the one they were looking for. Give 'em hell Virg.

VELSHI: The number of people getting jobless benefits in the United States tops 6 million for the first time this week. When the economy recovers the jobless rate should go down, but that 6 million people is even deceiving because that's the number of people getting jobless benefits and there are a whole lot of people who have been unemployed for so long they are just not getting benefits.

ROMANS: Right. People who have completely dropped out of the labor market as well, who have just sort of given up.

And frankly, some jobs especially in the manufacturing sector, there's a lot of concern that some of those jobs won't come back and there's even kind of an argument from people who say well those jobs aren't coming back so let's talk about innovation and something else.

We wanted to ask someone who has been dealing with this directly, what to do when your jobs are gone. Virg Bernero is the mayor of Lansing. Welcome to the program.

VIRG BERNERO, MAYOR, LANSING, MICHIGAN: Welcome -- hello, good to be here.

VELSHI: Let's talk about this. You are the mayor of Lansing. Michigan is clearly the state with the highest unemployment rate and there have been so many jobs lost and I just want to give our viewers a sense of this, back in 1999 the unemployment rate in the state of Michigan was 3.9 percent.

It went from 3.9 percent to 7.6 percent almost ten years later in 2008. By 2009 the state of Michigan has an unemployment rate of 12.6 percent and Lansing has a higher unemployment rate than that. Tell me your situation.

BERNERO: We are challenged. It's tough, but we are not alone. We're not unlike a lot of industrial cities. I've formed a group with other mayors the Alliance for the Automotive Coalition and other manufacturing mayors. We are hurting, there is no question about it and we do not accept that manufacturing is over because we think that manufacturing is key to the economic future of this country.

Our industries were in transition and General Motors we're a GM town, proudly so, we created a the Cadillac CTS motor trend car of the year last year and we know how productive and capable our people are and the great products they can produce, but we're in a global environment and we're in a free trade environment that has been created by Wall Street and Washington.

So our people struggle to compete and to win in that global economy, and I'm afraid that it's a race to the bottom. There's something wrong, I tell you, when you can produce great products and yet still, not be quote, unquote, competitive enough to win in this global economy.

ROMANS: Mayor you have been a big critic of free trade agreement and you blame some of these free trade agreements for the situation we're in now and here we now in a global recession where around the world we're talking about not putting up barriers and not moving toward protectionism and trying to make sure that we're all in this boat together.

BERNERO: You're talking about that. You are talking about that, I'm not talking about that. If you read about the ...

ROMANS: Our leaders are talking about it and I want to know what is your reaction. Don't blame me. I'm telling you, what is your reaction when you hear leaders around the world, G-20 leaders talking about making sure that the barriers aren't put up with other people's workers when in fact you are so concerned about free trade agreements in the first place.

BERNERO: I challenge your viewers and you all to look at what's really happening. Even "The New York Times" recently reported that the countries that are doing the best are the countries that are most isolationists and most protectionists. So for all the worry that Wall Street always warns us that we're going to start a trade war, if we have fair trade, if we insist on fair trade for our workers that's going to result in some kind of a trade war and even "The New York Times" reports that the countries that are doing the best are the ones that are least connected to the global economy.

I'm not suggesting that we become completely isolationist, but what I'm suggesting is that the Korean government puts Korean workers first, the Japanese government puts Japanese workers first, and the Chinese government in their own way puts their workers first. Who is putting the American worker first? I think it's time that Congress steps up to the plate and protect -- provide some degree of protection for the American way of life.

VELSHI: Let me ask you this question. Explain to our viewers how free trade has caused the demise of General Motors or Chrysler. Why is free trade the problem there?

BERNERO: I'd be delighted to. With every trade agreement, you don't have to believe me. You can Google this and you can research it. Every trade agreement that's been passed after it passes it's resulted in more unemployment and when China was admitted to the WTO, the World Trade Organization and given most favored nation trading status with this country, our trade deficit went up.

VELSHI: With the cars, why Toyota sells more cars and why Nissan sells more cars and why Honda sells more cars.

BERNERO: I would be happy to tell you. One is that we have a hard time competing because their governments stand behind their companies. One way, for example, I've been to the Hyundai plant in Korea, they're wonderful people and the government provides health care. When we get into talking about the government providing health care here we talk about oh, its socialized medicine and it's terrible. I got news for you the people we're competing with, their governments pay for health care so obviously those companies have less legacy costs.

You want to -- Wall Street wants to take it out on my dad. My 84-year-old father who worked hard all his life and earned that pension. What we get is guaranteed bonuses for Wall Street because it's contractual, but let's go after my dad and his pension, his reasonable little; modest pension that he's earned and all the other retirees like him and let's go out and take it out of their hides so Wall Street can keep getting theirs.

I'm telling you the American working people have had it with the double standard and they would like a little protection. The only one that's been protected is Wall Street and Washington.

ROMANS: We are really glad to have you on and we want to have you on again. We want to explore these issues further. I mean it is incredible to talk about some of the big ...

VELSHI: I still want him to tell me why we're not buying American cars but we'll get to that.

ROMANS: All right. Mayor ...

BERNERO: Nobody's buying any cars. Even Toyota is asking for help.

ROMANS: Lansing, Michigan. Thank you sir, come back again soon.

VELSHI: He's a passionate defender of the situation that many of the people in Michigan, particularly in Lansing, find themselves in.

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