Obama administration plans to close International Labor Comparisons office

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Like a scorekeeper for the world, a tiny unit within the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks globalization's winners and losers, and the results are not always pretty for the United States. Manufacturing jobs here, for example, have fallen faster since 1979 than in Canada, Germany or Japan. Compensation for those jobs dropped here in 2008 but jumped in South Korea and Australia.

Soon, however, Americans may be spared the demoralization in these numbers: The White House wants to shutter the unit that produces them.

President Obama's budget would eliminate the International Labor Comparisons office and transfer its 16 economists to expand the bureau's work tracking inflation and occupational trends. The White House says the cut, estimated to save $2 million, is one of many difficult decisions the president was forced to make to control spending.

"This budget had to make some tough choices and prioritize the nation's most pressing needs during a challenging economic and fiscal climate," said Office of Management and Budget spokesman Tom Gavin. But the proposed cut has triggered an outcry from an eclectic group of academics, business leaders and union officials -- a reminder that, in the sprawl of the federal government, some seemingly obscure offices have built a loyal following around their discrete missions.

The defenders argue that, given the need to succeed in a global economy, it makes little sense to shut down the office that measures how the country stacks up. There are other sources of foreign data, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Labor Organization, but none does as much as the BLS unit to vet and adjust numbers for apple-to-apple comparisons on productivity, unemployment and wage levels, supporters say.

"If you were going to cut this five years after they implemented it 50 years ago, that would be one thing -- who cared then about what's going on in Asia?" said Georgetown University economist Robert Bednarzik, who spent 10 years at the BLS and has started a petition drive to save the unit. "But they've picked the worst possible time to try and get rid of it -- when we're all in this together."

The International Labor Comparisons office dates to the 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy demanded to know whether Western European countries, which were reporting remarkably low unemployment rates, were using a different standard of accounting. The office later expanded to include Asia's emerging economies.

The biggest challenge was China, where reliable statistics are particularly hard to come by. But in 2004, the office contracted with Judith Banister, a former Census Bureau demographer then living in Beijing, who dug up statistical books in local bookstores that helped produce solid data on the Chinese economy. The unit added Brazil to the mix, and in the near future it plans to release its first reports on India.

Banister, a freelance researcher, said U.S. manufacturers need to know what they are up against overseas -- and, in some cases, whether to move work offshore.

Skeptics of free-trade policies criticize the closure for other reasons -- the unit's data, they argue, show just how harsh globalization is for the American worker, a reality that may be inconvenient for an administration generally more trade-oriented than the populist rhetoric of Obama's campaign suggested. They question if the unit is being closed solely for the budget savings, noting that $2 million is a relative pittance, less than 1 percent of the BLS budget.

"The type of documentation [the unit] is putting out could be detrimental to their efforts" on trade, said John Russo of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.

Gavin, the OMB spokesman, denied that motivation, saying the closure "wasn't a reflection of the quality of the work or a reflection of its usefulness so much as a reflection of priorities."

The budget proposal says the unit's statistics are "not widely used." But supporters point out that the unit's Web site got 1.5 million page views in 2009 -- about 4,000 a day.

Congress could yet decide to retain the program. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), for one, is concerned about the closure, said his spokeswoman Meghan Dubyak. "He plans on working with the administration and [congressional] leadership to ensure that we still have data to address offshoring and competitiveness issues," she said.

Meanwhile, the unit's close-knit group of workers is waiting to learn their fate. Its director, Connie Sorrentino, who has worked in the unit since the 1960s, said her colleagues were "devastated" when they heard the news but have since been heartened by their supporters.

"What helps us keep our chins up are the people who don't want to see it go under," she said. "You find out who your friends are when you're on the chopping block. Though that's a heck of a way to do a customer survey."

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