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Why Rebuilding America’s Manufacturing Muscle Is Essential

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As Goodyear began phasing out a tire plant in Alabama and shifting operations to a cheaper facility in Mexico a few years ago, Jeremy Hughes worried about the loss of his livelihood and the impact on his hometown.

Hughes also worried about the future of America. Sooner or later, he realized, the decline of U.S. manufacturing would put the entire nation at risk.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, that day has come.

Failed U.S. trade policies incentivized corporations to offshore family-sustaining manufacturing jobs, like the one Hughes lost, and left America dangerously dependent on other countries for consumer goods, industrial products and even the medical supplies critically needed to fight COVID-19.

America imports much of the personal protective equipment (PPE), including masksgowns and gloves, used by health care workers.

When the pandemic struck, America lacked the production capacity to meet the surging demand for PPE. It couldn’t import sufficient quantities from China, a major global supplier, either.

The loss of Goodyear jobs in Gadsden, Alabama, and China’s control of PPE supplies are two symptoms of America’s other pandemic—manufacturing decay.

Right now, the U.S.—once the world’s most powerful manufacturer—cannot produce on its own soil the items it most needs.

It has no vision for the future of manufacturing, no plan for leveraging the nation’s industrial capacity in emergencies.

If America fails to rebuild its manufacturing base, it will be just as vulnerable in the next crisis, whether that is a disease, war or natural disaster.

“We have to start buying American-made products. I can’t stress that enough,” said Hughes, the treasurer of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12L. “The union has been preaching this for years.”

For decades, the USW and other labor unions warned that America’s economy and security depended on a strong manufacturing sector.

In the early 1990s, unions vehemently opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), arguing that greedy corporations would relocate U.S. manufacturing operations to Mexico so they could exploit cheap labor, the lack of worker protections and lax environmental regulation.

That’s exactly what happened. NAFTA cost the U.S. 1 million jobs.

And it left America a frail version of its once-mighty self.

Manufacturers of carsheavy equipment partstextiles, clothing, rubber products, furniturevalvesbearingsbrake calipers and appliances, among many other items, moved operations from the U.S. to Mexico under NAFTA.

But America still needs all of those items, just as it does PPE for health care workers. It needs refrigerators for food safety; tires, like the ones Hughes made at Goodyear, to keep cars and pickups on the road; oil pumps to keep heavy equipment operating; and valves and bearings to ensure all kinds of machines, including military equipment, remain in working condition.

If America cannot make these products, it must buy them from other countries. That kind of feeble dependence threatens the nation’s safety and security.

And it isn’t just the cars, tires and refrigerators themselves. America needs everything that goes into producing them—the factories, equipment and skilled workers, all of which can be pressed into service during a national emergency.

Manufacturing capacity is raw strength. It made America a superpower. But American policymakers let U.S. manufacturing muscle turn to flab.

As if that weren’t bad enough, they also allowed China and other countries to dump unfairly traded steelpaperglasstires and other goods into U.S. markets, undercutting the dwindling number of manufacturers that remained here.

China subsidizes its manufacturers with cash, materials and land, then lets them flood global markets. This cheating killed U.S. companies and cost 3.7 million American jobs over the past two decades.

Today, China monopolizes the production and distribution of many consumer products, like toys and electronics, as well as supplies of ventilators, PPE, medicines and other critical items. Last year, the U.S. ran an Advanced Technology Products trade deficit with China of more than $100 billion.

Decades of industrial decline left America unprepared for the pandemic. COVID-19 simply caught America flat-footed.

“We don’t have stockpiles of protective equipment,” observed Valery Robinson, president of USW Local 7600, which represents nurses, phlebotomists and other workers at Kaiser Permanente facilities in California.

In the mad scramble to conserve supplies, she said, the health system shut down nonessential facilities. Workers offered to find and bring in their own PPE.

The nation not only lacked the capacity to manufacture these essential items, but U.S. leaders had no clear strategy for marshaling scarce resources, ramping up production and putting industry on a war footing.

Unions demanded that the Trump administration invoke the Defense Production Act, a 1950s law that enables the federal government to direct American factories to produce goods essential to the nation’s security.

Trump dithered. So manufacturers, many of them relying on the dedication and skills of USW members, began making masks, hand sanitizer and other products on their own.

That’s a starting point for rebuilding America’s manufacturing strength.

But ad hoc efforts to battle the pandemic must evolve into a comprehensive strategy for bringing back an essential economic sector.

That means including “Buy American” provisions in government contracts that incentivize corporations to make products here instead of chasing the cheap deal overseas.

It means investing in domestic manufacturing opportunities. The government took a step in the right direction on May 19 by awarding a $354 million contract to a Virginia drugmaker for production of generic medicines and pharmaceutical ingredients now made in China, India and other foreign countries.

To ensure the lessons of the pandemic remain at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, Congress must establish a domestic manufacturing commission to plan, oversee and report on production growth.

Never again can America flounder in a crisis or ask front-line workers to battle a pandemic without basic supplies.

It might cost a little more to make that equipment domestically.

“But at the end of the day,” Robinson said, “it’s right here.”

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).


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Corporate Rewards: Controlling U.S. Trade Policy

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Leo GerardReal men, real human beings, with feelings and families, fought and died at Gettysburg to preserve the Union, to ensure, as their president, Abraham Lincoln, would say later, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Perversely, afterwards, non-humans commandeered the constitutional amendment intended to protect the rights of former slaves. Corporations wrested from the U.S. Supreme Court a decision based on the 14th Amendment asserting that corporations are people with rights to be upheld by the government – but with no counterbalancing human responsibilities to the republic. No duty to fight or die in war, for example. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court expanded those rights – ruling that corporations have a First Amendment free speech right to surreptitiously spend unlimited money on political campaigns.

Today, Lincoln would have to say America’s got a government of the people by the corporations, for the corporations.

The proposed trade agreement with South Korea illustrates corporate control of government for profit. It’s the same with efforts to revive the moribund trade schemes former President George W. Bush also negotiated with Panama and Colombia, the world’s most dangerous country by far for trade unionists, with 2,700 assassinated with impunity in the past two decades, 38 slain so far this year.

Nobody likes these trade deals – except corporations. They’re all modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), both of which killed American jobs while giving corporations new authority to sue governments (read: taxpayers) for regulations – like environmental standards – that corporations contend interfere with their right to make money.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the South Korea so-called Free Trade Agreement (FTA) would cost America 159,000 jobs and enlarge its trade deficit by $16.7 billion in its first seven years.

Americans, now suffering though corporate-caused 9.6 percent unemployment, know a deal when they see one – and the South Korea FTA is not one. In a September poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, 53 percent of Americans said so-called free trade agreements have injured the country. Only 17 percent said those trade schemes benefited the United States. Disgust with these deals spans party lines, including Tea Partiers, 61 percent of whom said they’re bad for America.

Many politicians, particularly Democrats, abhor the schemes as well. In July, just after President Obama announced that he would try to get the South Korea pact passed, 110 House Democrats described their disdain for the deal:

“We oppose specific provisions of the agreement in the financial services, investment, and labor chapters, because they benefit multi-national corporations at the expense of small businesses and workers.”

In addition, during this fall’s midterm election campaign, 205 candidates, Republican and Democrat, ran on platforms condemning job off-shoring and unfair trade, and house Democrats who ran on fair trade were three times as likely to survive the GOP “shellacking” as Democrats who supported so-called free trade schemes.

Significantly, the South Korean public and some South Korean politicians also oppose the trade proposal. In the week leading up to the G-20 meetings in Seoul, trade unionists, farmers, peasants and students filled the streets in marches and candle light vigils to express outrage with the proposed agreement, including its provisions giving U.S. corporations the right to challenge South Korean laws in private tribunals.

In October, 35 South Korean lawmakers joined 20 U.S. Representatives in writing President Obama and Korean President Lee Myunk-bak to protest the proposal.

Despite all that opposition, when Obama and Lee emerged from talks without an agreement, the American press, pundits and “analysts on both sides of the aisle,” described the situation as a major diplomacy failure, “a serious setback for the president.”

They were wrong. It wasn’t a setback for Obama. It was the president refusing to sign a bad deal for American workers.

It was, however, a humiliation for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which just spent at least $50 million from secret corporate donors to elect Republicans who will do its bidding. The South Korea deal is a priority for the Chamber. Here’s what Chamber senior vice president for international affairs Myron Brilliant told the New York Times after the South Korean negotiations broke down and Obama pledged to attempt to complete the deal over the following six weeks:

“This will be an early test for this president with the new Congress, particularly the House leadership.”

The “Brilliant” test is whether the president of the United States will comply with Chamber demands to complete trade deals that kill jobs and that Americans despise.

When Obama went to Seoul, Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue was there to, as he put it, help win the trade deal. He also was among 120 executives given exclusive access to international leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev in a conference before the G-20 meeting.

The international organizers didn’t invite to the trade talks or the conference the students, farmers, environmental groups, organized labor and untold millions of individuals who oppose the so-called free trade deals. The human beings who will be hurt most by the trade deals didn’t get a seat at the table. The corporate-people who stand to gain everything did.

Brilliant’s comments express the corporate sense of entitlement. They spent tens of millions to get what they wanted from politicians to increase profits. Now they expect it to be delivered. It’s their recompense, their corporate reward.

If fatter profits mean fewer American jobs and wider trade deficits, that’s simply not a problem for corporations. That’s among the perks corporations got when the Supreme Court awarded them the privileges of personhood in America but none of the pesky personal and patriotic responsibilities of actual people in American society.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.


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An Agreement That Isn’t Good for Anyone: The Panama Trade Promotion Agreement

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People and planet should come before profits, but the proposed Panama trade plan would mean greed rules. The Senate Finance committee is meeting tomorrow to discuss the proposed Panama Trade Promotion Agreement. Top trade negotiator Ron Kirk is trying to ram through this agreement by July 1, when the Panamanian head of state Martin Torrijos leaves office. But this is just another free trade agreement that is bad for the people of Panama, it’s bad for the planet, and it’s no good for people of the US. We should call upon Congress to stop it now.

There’s a rancher that I know who raises cattle in the San Blas mountains of Panama, who I’ll only call Uncle Rickie. I met Uncle Rickie when I traveled to Panama in November of 2008, and I remember him for being a jolly fellow with a big belly who proudly bounced his new granddaughter Antonia, his first grandchild, on his knee.

If the Panama agreement went forward, Uncle Rickie would have to contend with a host of difficulties. The first would be that US cattle ranchers, who enjoy hundreds of millions in subsidies from the US government (US livestock farmers got handouts of about $344 million in 2003, for example,) would suddenly be able to sell duty-free to Panamanians. At the same time, Uncle Rickie will have to compete with a dramatic influx of cheap pork products from the US. Pro-pork lobbyists think that increased sales to Panama will result in $20.6 million in increased revenue. Uncle Rickie will have a lot of trouble making a profit by selling his beef to the Panamanian market, and eventually he may have to sell his land.

Farmers should be allowed to sell to their local markets. Local, living economies are good for everyone. If officials pass the harmful agreement, farmers like Uncle Rickie will no longer be able to carry on farming. Who would be there to buy the land of farmers who are forced to sell? Companies from the US and other rich nations, and maybe some wealthy Panamanians who support this agreement. This leads to a consolidation of power and decision-making as fewer people own more and more of planet earth. But people have a right to self-determination and autonomy, and the Panamanian government should respect that right.

Another supporter of the Panama agreement is Caterpillar, maker of heavy machinery used for logging and constructions. They are frothing at the mouth thinking of all the Panamanian trees that they can cut down and the increased heavy machinery sales that will result.

By the time little Antonia is going on her first date, the forests of Panama will probably be decimated, the clean rivers and pristine stands of old growth trees a distant memory. Verdant ecosystems will be forever ruined for incredible species like the blue morpho butterfly, which I first saw shining iridescently as it soared through the rainforest in the Boquete region of Panama. Like all of us, Antonia has a right to intact ecosystems, which Caterpillar seeks to undermine through supporting this trade agreement.

Another group who will be thrown under the bus if this agreement passed would be the Kuna Indians, a Panamanian ethnic group who have preserved their cultural heritage. Traditional farmers and artisans, these indigenous peoples will also face steep competition and many may have to abandon the ecologically sustainable, culturally rich ways of life their ancestors have known for thousands of years.

Will Antonia benefit from a more productive national economy? Probably not. Even looking at the brute economic indicator of gross domestic product, this trade agreement does not promise positive effects.

A similar trade agreement offers foreshadowing of what could happen if the Panama agreement goes through. NAFTA, a 1994 trade agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico, has shown that increased unprotected trade with the US is not likely to promote self-government, support local, living economies, or benefit most people at all.

GDP growth has been unequal after NAFTA, with Canada growing an average of 3.6 percent per year, the US growing 3.3 percent and Mexico growing only 2.7 percent. The average Mexican did not benefit from this growth, as income inequality has risen. Wages of Mexican workers decreased by 18 percent in the first five years. The predominant occupation in Mexico prior to NAFTA was farming, but many farmers, mostly in Central Mexico, were forced to sell or abandon their land after subsidized corn from the US flooded into Mexican markets, leaving the Mexican farmer unable to compete. Corn is indigenous to Mexico, and was farmed mostly sustainably. But now what is left is forced to compete in an atmosphere of industrial agriculture.

After NAFTA, Mexico has maintained a trade deficit with the US, meaning they import more than they export. This leaves the country hemorrhaging money and exports, which isn’t good for anyone in Mexico.

Furthermore, trade agreements like this one are bad for US workers, as we lose jobs here in the US. In just the first seven years, NAFTA had caused the loss of 766,030 jobs in the US. And it will cost us tax dollars, too. By 2002, the US Department of Labor had qualified 408,000 workers extensions on their unemployment benefits because their jobs had moved to Mexico.

Trade between the US and Panama totaled $2.1 billion in 2002 according to the office of the US Trade Representative. US exports account for about $1.8 billion of that amount. This means that for every $10 worth of goods that the US sells to Panama, Panama sells only $1 worth of goods to the US. The exports Panama sells to the US account for a tiny fraction, only 1.4 percent, of its GDP of $21 billion. Yet it is willing to sell its people down the river for this pittance.

The farmers who’ll be forced to sell their land and migrate may be forced to relocate to the city of Colon, where there are jobs in the Colon Free Trade Zone, or Zono Libre. When you picture a free trade zone, picture “Pleasure Island” from the Disney cartoon Pinocchio. For rich companies, a free trade zone represents a lawless area free from tariffs, taxes, or pesky labor or environmental laws. It usually looks like a collection of warehouse-like buildings on the edge of a port city that is protected by barbed wire. Working people (such as ex-farmers) travel into these zones each morning to do the most tedious grunt labor in return for low wages. Corporations like the low wages, while the workers are usually just desperate for any work they can get. Ships pull up to the buildings, unload raw materials like T-shirt fabric or radio parts, workers assemble them, and the finished goods get shipped to rich countries where people can afford them.

In his 2008 State of the Union address, Bush asked Congress to approve the Panama trade agreement, gleefully stating that the agreement “will support good jobs for the finest workers in the world: those whose products say ‘Made in the USA.’” That sentiment is perplexing to anyone familiar to Zono Libre, where low-paid workers work in unsafe work conditions to sew together textiles bound for the US valued at $400 million per year for companies like Orotex, with offices in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Textiles and clothing account for about 24 percent of the work done in Zono Libre. This happens as US workers lose more and more textiles jobs (stat), yet purchase more and more clothing (stat).

For all the celebrated freedom that free trade measures like the Colon Free Trade Zone has received, you would think that Panamanians would be better off, however the average Panamanian is not better off. Income inequality has risen, placing Panama among some of the most unequal countries in Latin America. Panama’s index for income inequality is 60, according to a World Bank report. As the report says, “[Inequality] is more obvious in urban areas like Colon, where the close, physical juxtaposition of the modern, dynamic wealthy sector with poor city slums accentuates the perceived gap between rich and poor.”

I have never seen Colon since my Panamanian friends have insisted that if I were to travel there I would become a certain victim of a mugging or kidnapping. But the real Panamanian danger isn’t really frustrated urban poor who see wealth all around them but can’t touch it. The real danger is the Panama trade agreement.

Some are arguing that this trade agreement is needed to rescue the US economy. But Panama’s entire economy is 0.15 percent the size of the US economy. The US has one hundred times more people than Panama. That’s right, I’m saying the country is tiny. For US officials to undermine people’s basic rights in order to do business with this small country in the hopes that its tiny economy will deliver us from certain economic death is a mistake.

If passed, this agreement will harm Panamanians like Uncle Rickie. It will negatively impact little Antonia and make her economic future less certain. It will not benefit the average Panamanian but is likely to lead to a decrease in self-government and a spike in income inequality, as NAFTA did. And it will not benefit people in the US. Our Congress should vote an emphatic “no” on the Panama Trade Promotion Agreement.

About the Author: Lacy MacAuley is a global justice activist, antiwar activist, and environmentalist with a passion for amplifying the voices of those who otherwise would not be heard. With a BA in International Relations specializing in World Development Studies, she is committed to promoting local, living economies that place people, planet, and principle before profit. She ignited a creative fire while working as news editor for her college newspaper, and has kept the flame burning through intensive grassroots organizing and  Lacy has done media relations work with groups such as Project Vote and ACORN, Global Justice Action, United for Peace and Justice, Jubilee USA, Mountain Justice Summer, and Working America (community affiliate of the AFL-CIO). Lacy is currently working on the Global Justice Media Project, and doing progressive communications work with Massey Media LLC.


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