Manufacturing a Middle Class with Quality Jobs

Dave Johnson

The main presenter at Saturday’s Netroots Nation panel “Manufacturing a Middle Class with Quality Jobs” was Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), representing Flint. Get to know about this guy – he is an absolute rock star. He is sharp, funny and, most important, he is right on top of things. He “gets it” about manufacturing, trade, inequality and the need to invest in building a sustainable economy that provides good-paying jobs and benefits so we can have a thriving and prosperous middle class and ladders up into that middle class for people.

Also on this panel were moderator Joe Sudbay, who we know from AmericaBlog, Laura Clawson from Daily Kos, Scott Paul of the Alliance for American Manufacturing and Durwin Royal (another rock star), President of United Steelworkers Local 4134, representing more than 1,200 union members in East Texas.

Rep. Dan Kildee began, saying our nation has essentially abdicated its manufacturing base and embraced a form of globalization for which we have paid a heavy price. We need to rebuild manufacturing, but do it in a way that rebuilds the middle class and a sustainable economy.

He talked about the congressional Make It In America legislative effort – a package of bills that amount to a national manufacturing policy.

“In Congress we have developed an agenda around manufacturing – Make It In America – offering for first time in a long time a true industrial policy around how manufacturing operates, on the presumption that we really don’t have a sustainable economy without making things building things and growing things here.

For many the embrace of a “knowledge economy” is based on an uninformed assumption that it can supplant manufacturing. It can’t. We have to reinvest.

As we move forward we continue to see some reshoring, support for manufacturing, we have to be sure we build a sustainable economy that works for everyone and rebuild the middle class.

Here we are in Michigan. Not very far from here about 100 years ago Henry Ford — no left-leaning socialist he — decided to increase wages of workers to $5 a day because he understood the need to make sure they could be a customer base.

In Flint, workers occupied the plants to get the first union agreement between UAW and GM. Unionization of the workforce helped us achieve for a long time the basic bargain, a fair share of the vast wealth of our economy, that the manufacturing base generates, accrues to people who contribute to that highly productive capacity.

The challenge is not just how to grow manufacturing but how to create an economy that works for everyone.

That sit-down strike in 1936 and ’37 involved great violence, when GM called governor Frank Murphy to send in the National Guard, their intent was to get workers out and allow scabs to come in and operate the facilities. But the National Guard came in to remove police and let workers continue.

Now in December 2012, [Michigan] Gov. Snyder brought right-to-work to the legislature after the election, ushered in right-to-work to Michigan, newly elected legislators were not in place to vote against it.

Trade policy – NAFTA came in with great promises of increased markets new manufacturing. Take a drive around Detroit and have a look at what happened when we decided as a nation to create trade policy that did not lift standards of the rest of the world, but we engaged in a race to the bottom.

What has that resulted in? Now there is an effort to reduce environmental standards so we can compete, reduce wages so we can compete. This is unsustainable. That’s not new theory, Henry Ford figured that out.”

Scott Paul said that if we had 435 Dan Kildees, we wouldn’t have a problem; he says and does the right thing.

“This is not about a lack of persuading anyone we need a manufacturing base, there is a place for public policy on that path, it is the politics,” Paul said. “We had a booth at the National Conference of State Legislators. ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council] had a booth, a guy comes up and says you should have a booth at our conference. I said your members would certainly be for it but the money at ALEC would get you fired if we had a booth.

“Politicians love to show up at factories, say “Made in America,” wear hardhats, then they forget about it. Then they say we need to do so-and-so for foreign policy reasons, or Wall Street says no. So left behind is the city of Detroit, and manufacturing policy.”

Durwin “Oodie” Royal said he “lives it.”

“In ’98 we had about 2,500 employees, then Thanksgiving, they laid off everybody except maybe 30 here 40 there. Because of illegal foreign dumping. Same thing again 2009. We had 1600, the plant was always loud, then I hear crickets, nothing running, idle because of unfair dumping.

Now it’s the OTCG [oil country tubular goods] thing, same thing happens. Why do we keep doing this over and over and over? Nobody ever gives me an answer.

The middle class is me. We drive the economy. If you know anything about Texas, our politics is kind of crazy. Republicans are not helping, I feel what Kildee is going through now … It’s treason to tell you the truth. We file trade cases, we win, then they do it again.”

Sudbay says Laura Clawson “has a perch to watch what’s happening in labor … Tell us what you’re seeing, how do people view manufacturing?” Here’s part of what she said:

“People tell you to write at an 8th grade level to reach the most people. Infrastructure and privatization are long works to use. There is a lot more concern and people are paying a lot more attention than you would think.

We need stories to tell people to get them excited and invested. Crumbling bridges. The Bay Bridge story is about outsourcing, lack of transparency, oversight, accountability. People who tried to call attention to the problems were reassigned, contracts were dropped. Clearly Caltrans [the California Department of Transportation] covered up potential problems.

I don’t want to have to be telling horror stories like that to make the case for American manufacturing.

We deserve to have the government support our economy and middle class. The Right’s three-to-four-decade war on workers, they have succeeded in pitting people against each other. Now if you talk about a blue-collar worker who has a pension, you get “I don’t, why should they” when people should say “I should have good pay and a pension, too.” How do we move the debate back toward solidarity?

It’s a good enough argument that we should be building our own bridges, we should know how, think of it as investing not just in a bridge but in skills of workers and the economies around it. Lack of oversight is not the only problem with moving manufacturing overseas. It’s not jingoism, but if we are not investing in here, we’re going to get what you get when you don’t invest in here.”

Excerpts from the Q & A

Q: Moving from state to state to chase tax breaks just shuffles jobs around to the lowest bidder. How can we stop that?

Kildee: It’s not just between states, it actually manifests within regions, too. We saw suburban and rural communities offer tax and inducements to locate out of older industrial cities, just outside of cities. They go between northeast and such – unionized and non-unionized. There is no value added to the overall economy, we increase disparity and decrease competitiveness. What is left behind is unsustainable, greater dependency.

Q: NAFTA [North American Free-Trade Agreement] and TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] – how can Democrats support things like this, how did they get to this place?

Kildee: I see it even now, with the tax extenders. We have to stand strong… focus attention on people driving this policy, make life uncomfortable for some of our own friends and supporters.

Facts should invade a conversation [about] this 20-year experiment with unbalanced trade agreements. We need to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire. We have to empower the Democratic wing of the Democratic party.

Q: [A questioner asks about a plan unions are fighting to outsource some Post Office customer services to Staples and its nonunion workforce.]

Kildee: January 20, 1981 [the beginning of the Reagan presidency] marked the beginning of demonization of unions and public employees. “Our fortunes as middle-class folks are slipping away because people who go to work are making too much money and get pensions.” No public or private organization has even been required to prefund its pensions for 75 years [as is the U.S. Postal Service]. We need to have a repeated explanation of what is happening.

Laura: Congress forbids post office from doing various kinds of business. Can’t notary, fax, and other things. This is a calculated destruction of our infrastructure. There is such a thing as a public good.

Royal: Unions get blamed for everything. Negotiate a contract, it’s just me, they have a team of lawyers. The notion that myself and other guys drive a company out of business is crazy.

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