'Bain bus' protest a vehicle for bigger debate about workers

Mon, Oct 8, 2012, 01:00

IT HARDLY looks like a towering threat to Mitt Romney’s election hopes. But try telling that to the occupants of this flimsy, 24-seat Ford minivan.

The “Bain bus”, which includes current and former employees of companies bought by Bain Capital, is rolling through swing states such as Ohio, Virginia and Florida to protest at the business practices and economic plans of company’s long-time chief executive, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Today, midway through its 7,500-mile journey, it is stopped at Quincy Park and a small group of about 150 people has gathered to lend support. They’re about to demonstrate outside the local Republican headquarters. The bus is emblazoned with yellow and black signs that scream: “Stop the Romney economy.”

There are employees like Libya Wilson (19), a mother of two from Pittsburg, who works for Dunkin’ Donuts. She tells of how conditions in her $8-an-hour job have deteriorated since it was taken over by the private equity firm, with unreliable hours, unpaid breaks and expanding responsibilities without pay increases.

“We were told we’d get a small raise every six months, and more if we worked beyond what was expected. That’s all changed,” she says. “How do I pay for diapers, clothes or shoes for my kids?”

There are also employees from Sensata Technologies, a profitable motor sensors firm that was bought up by Bain and is about to be relocated to China.

Tom Gaulrapp, from Freeport in Illinois, will lose his job after 23 years. He says he was earning a decent wage of up to $18 an hour, or $40,000 a year. Now, he fears scrabbling to find low-paid work.

“If all of this continues, then we won’t have any middle class left,” he says. “All that we’re left with are minimum-wage jobs with no benefits.”

Bain Capital isn’t to blame for the slew of problems facing low-paid workers in the United States. But it has become a lightning rod for much of the fear and anxiety among voters over job security, outsourcing and the good of the wider community.

In short, it has become a vehicle for a larger conversation about the state of the American worker. While a majority of jobs lost during the economic downturn in the US have been in the middle range of wages, most of those added during the recovery have been low-paying, according to a National Employment Law Project report. The disappearance of mid-wage, mid-skill jobs is part of a longer- term trend that some refer to as a hollowing out of the workforce.

“The overarching message here is we don’t just have a jobs deficit; we have a ‘good jobs’ deficit,” Annette Bernhardt, the report’s author and a policy co-director at the National Employment Law Project, said at the report’s launch.

Low-paid jobs or minimum- wage jobs accounted for just over 20 per cent of job losses during the recession. Many of these jobs were outsourced. Since employment started growing in recent times, low-paid jobs accounted for almost 60 per cent of all job growth.

Bain Capital’s story is just a small symptom of a much bigger overall shift in the economy, and of globalisation in general.

In his campaign for president, Romney – a champion of free markets and small government – has sought to use his business experience to his advantage. He has argued that his private-sector knowledge of building companies makes him the best candidate to turn around the ailing US economy.

While some firms he invested in were overleveraged with debt and collapsed, leaving many workers high and dry, others flourished and went on to create even more jobs.

“Bain Capital invested in many businesses,” a Romney spokesman said in a written statement. “While not every business was successful, the firm had an excellent overall track record and created jobs with well-known companies like Staples, Domino’s Pizza and Sports Authority.”

The Obama campaign, in the meantime, has been portraying Romney as a heartless capitalist and “outsourcing pioneer”, more interested in making money than in creating jobs. But the president has yet to move beyond blunt criticism of outsourcing to outline a detailed strategy of how to take advantage of the inevitable march of globalisation.

On the Bain Bus, there’s little doubt over which candidate will offer them a more secure future – but there’s also recognition that miracles won’t happen overnight.

“Barack Obama needs our support,” says Libya Wilson. “The bad things he was left with won’t change overnight, I was always told patience is key to life – and that’s what we need to remember.”

Simara Martinez (21) from Boston worked for Dunkin’ Donuts until recently. She helps her mother out, who also works two low-paid jobs. “I just don’t want a cold-hearted businessman who’s on the side of the rich,” she says. “I want someone who cares for people. We might as well vote for someone who will try to change things for us, rather than someone who doesn’t give a damn.”