The manufacturing dilemma

Over the last few years I have seen the American worker become more and more an endangered species. Sure, there are jobs out there but fewer and fewer of them involve making stuff. Last month the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) glumly noted that manufacturing jobs were off an astounding 29,000 in March. As AAM’s Scott Paul noted:

With 29,000 manufacturing jobs lost last month, it is clear this issue isn’t going away anytime soon. China’s massive industrial overcapacity, currency manipulation, and our growing China trade deficit continue to tip the scales, and it’s laid-off U.S. factory workers who pay the price. That’s not right. American manufacturers can outcompete anyone in the world, but they need a level playing field.

As I have pointed out before, AAM is an outgrowth of the steel industry, particularly the steelworkers’ union. So their perspective leans toward protectionism to a point where they regularly accuse China of cheating us on trade through both currency manipulation and their “dumping” tons of steel on the market. One Illinois steel worker they quoted put the latter charge thusly:

For the past 38 years, I’ve been a steelworker at U.S. Steel Granite City Works in Granite City, Illinois.

I’m proud of the work my 2,000 colleagues and I do at the mill. We produce a high-quality product that’s used in automobiles, construction and energy exploration. In one case, we even made a grade of steel for a major automaker that no other mill had been able to produce!

But right now we need your help.

Because of unfair trade, 1,500 of my coworkers are currently laid off. They don’t know when they’ll be called back – or even if they’ll be called back.

Granite City isn’t the only place coping with layoffs. More than 1,000 people who work at the U.S. Steel Fairfield Tubular Operations in Alabama are laid off. Nearly 350 folks at U.S. Steel Keetac in Minnesota also are out of work, as are hundreds of people at facilities in places like Colorado and Oregon.

All told, more than 13,500 steelworkers are facing layoffs - and the list is growing.

(snip)

We’re facing an unprecedented onslaught of dumped steel from countries like China, which is producing way more steel than it can use. That steel is heavily subsidized by China’s government, which also doesn’t require its companies to abide by strict labor or environmental laws. China needs to get rid of its steel, so it dumps it into our market at a rock-bottom price.

That’s not fair to American steelmakers and workers, who compete in an open market.

And steelworkers aren’t the only ones who deal with the burden of unfair trade.

I can’t stop anywhere in town without being asked about the layoffs. When so many workers are forced to tighten their belt, it impacts everyone - from restaurants to grocery stores to retail.

Fair trade groups such as the Manufacturers for Trade Enforcement now oppose China’s possible ascension to a “market economy” for trading purposes by our Commerce Department, while AAM also questions China’s effect on our national security as steelworkers lose their jobs:

Plant closures, mass layoffs, and the loss of key technology and manufacturing know-how are sure to follow unless we act.

Moreover, with the loss of U.S. steelmaking capabilities comes a dangerous dependence on these same potentially hostile foreign governments to supply the steel products necessary to equip our military, respond to disasters, and modernize our increasingly fragile infrastructure.

This has actually been a concern for several years. In some respects the concerns about steel parallel our oil crisis, when we lost the ability to supply our own needs and became vulnerable to OPEC’s embargoes in the 1970s. Having lived through that as a child and seeing how it affected our economy, I have issues with the greatest country in the world becoming such a disposable society that we forget how to be self-sufficient. We should have never put ourselves in a position where, for so many of those devices and conveniences that make our lives easier and promote commerce, we depend on a nation that points missiles at us.

That’s not to say everything is bad news, though. As Bryan Riley shows in the Daily Signal, foreign investment in America far outstrips what we invest overseas. And while it’s true Carrier is moving 2,100 jobs from Indiana to Mexico, Riley argues that the net effect will be less as foreign automakers Toyota, Honda, and Subaru are adding a total of 1,600 jobs around the state. Riley adds:

While Carrier has been called “greedy” for moving to Mexico, no one in Indiana is calling Toyota, Honda, or Subaru greedy for choosing to invest in the United States.

(snip)

In total, over 2 million American manufacturing workers are employed by foreign-owned companies. And while American companies have invested over $700 billion in foreign production facilities since 2000, foreign-owned companies have invested over $1.3 trillion in the U. S. manufacturing operations during the same time frame.

The result: a $614 billion manufacturing investment “surplus” for the United States from 2000 to 2015.

Granted, the year 2000 may have been an artificial and arbitrary deadline considering the exodus of manufacturing jobs from our shores began decades earlier, but there are thousands of Americans who work for foreign-owned companies in all sectors – heck, most people who drink a non-craft beer are supporting American workers toiling for a foreign-owned conglomerate.

Still, we should be doing all we can to promote the old-fashioned art of making things here. There were millions of families around the country (including mine) where there was only one breadwinner (Mom stayed at home) who could still achieve middle-class status because they made good money while creating the products America needed. (In my dad’s case it was concrete block and other cement products. That plant has long been out of business, sadly.) Now that’s all but impossible, as the norm has become two-earner families who can barely keep up with expenses, living paycheck to paycheck. By the time I was in high school, our family was one of those, too.

Perhaps the boom times of the last half of the twentieth century were bound to come to an end sometime, but we should be doing our best to bring them back by allowing workers and companies to create and enhance the value of raw products as much as possible. To use a simplistic example of building a car: we create value for iron ore by extracting it somewhere in the upper Midwest, add value by shipping it by ship down the lake to a steel mill in Indiana, further enhance it by processing it into steel there before shipping it again via truck or rail to a Toledo auto plant, then create even more value by its becoming the fender to a new Jeep, which again is placed on truck or a railcar to deliver to your local dealer. Each step in the process creates a little bit more value from that chunk of rocks once buried underground to the new Wrangler sitting at the dealership, meanwhile helping to create a better standard of living for hundreds of employees in the process.

But somewhere a few decades back we decided it was cheaper to have someone else do it – iron ore from one of a host of countries may or may not be processed there, but it goes to Japan or Korea and they build the cars. Granted, their success led them to put assembly plants here in America but I’d like to keep the process more in-house where we can.

Just because there’s a global economy doesn’t mean we in America have to settle for second best. But it does mean America needs new, fresh leadership that believes in American exceptionalism and wants to create the conditions where we can once again prosper.

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