Outsourcing is changing business as usual
 By Bill Virgin Seattle P.I.: Oct. 23, 2003

  THOSE WHO WERE AROUND for the Nisqually Quake of February 2001 remember the experience vividly: It started loud and strong and got louder and stronger, but for all the shaking and how long it went on, damage was remarkably light and scattered.
  There's a different sort of earthquake going on in that territory where business and government policy intersect: It's barely perceptible, occurring in scattered locales, building slowly in intensity.
  But by the time it's done, it could thoroughly rearrange the landscape of political alliances, trade policy and business organizations.
  The epicenter of this particular earthquake is the nation's small and medium-size manufacturers. Like many, they’ve been watching with concern the continued offshore outsourcing of American technology, production and jobs. Unlike many, they have firsthand experience with the impacts of that trend. Those small and medium-size manufacturers are the customers, and suppliers of big manufacturers who are shipping that work overseas.
  “We've seen the mechanism firsthand,” says Dorothy Weissert of Weissert Tool & Design in Washougal in Clark County. The company has designed molds and production tools for Fortune 500 companies, "and the next thing we know, they're taking them to Singapore."
  Weissert is one of two representatives in Washington for an emerging grass-roots organization known as Save American Manufacturing Now (www.samnow.org), which Weissert says is trying to get government officials to "connect the dots" between trade policy, job losses and, long-term economic trends.
  To read some of the rhetoric on the Save American Manufacturing Now Web site, if you didn't have the logo on display, you might think you were reading the Web site of the AFL-CIO.
  And that illustrates one of the potentially earth-shaking changes afoot.
  Business is not monolithic; even in the best of times, small and large business uneasily co-exist in large umbrella groups purporting to represent all or large swaths of the world of commerce.
  In these times, the fault line is widening. John McCoy of Bellingham's Omnitech Technical Associates, also a Save American Manufacturing Now representative, says big companies that think they’ll win by playing the offshoring/ outsourcing game "are going to wind up getting beat at the end."
  But many big companies argue they have to chase the supposedly lower cost of outsourcing to survive, and many others don't concede the argument that the trend poses long-term risks in the form of lost control of technological innovation.
  Consequently, the big trade organizations are seen as siding with big companies, at least by the small players.
  Thus the emergence of groups such as SAMN - and thus the creation-of new alliances with labor and others of a similar mind on trade topics. That has already put strains on organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers, which is finding itself at the center of a tug of war on taking a stand on trade issues.
  The other seismic shift could come in the political realm. A story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin is where SAMN got its start) recounts the success the group has had in convincing members of Congress -Republican and Democrat - to its cause on trade issues. The story quotes Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., who won an endorsement from SAMN: "Late last year, suddenly, small-business people started coming to my town meetings, especially in the eastern part of the state, whom I'd never seen before. They made it very clear they were almost exclusively conservative Republicans..... We realized they were a new, rather unique coalition of manufacturers, who simply believe these trade agreements have shipped our economy overseas."
  For Republicans, this promises to reopen the Main Street vs Wall Street split that has long been a feature of the party. Democrats, too, could find their party fractured on this issue.
  It's unwise to predict that the new alliances now forming will be permanent. The new and seemingly unlikely allies may find out there's a reason they didn't like each other in the first place. And they may find that their proposed remedies are incompatible with one another.
  But it's equally unsafe to presume the status quo will be left standing when the shaking stops. That issue resonates with too many people, the potential consequences are too great and the trend is too long-term for this to be an issue forgotten in the next campaign cycle. The needles on the seismograph are already twitching now. Within a few months, they may be zinging furiously back and forth across the graph of the America's political scene and its economy.

P-I reporter Bill Virgin can be reached at 206-448-8319 or billvirgin@seattlepi.com. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.