Restoring America’s Industrial Base

Guest Commentary

Volume CII, No. 12December, 2002

Richard Trumka, Secretary-Treasurer, AFL-CIO

The recent corporate scandals have shown that those who are in charge of our economy have failed us. CEO’s have cooked the books, lied and cheated. And their politician friends have prevented government regulators from investigating their crooked operations.

We also learned something else: that the economic ideas they sold the American people were as phony as the profits they said they were making. For years, we were told that business didn’t need to be regulated, that workers could trust their retirement to 401(k)’s.

They also said America no longer needed a manufacturing base because we were in a “new economy” and we didn’t have to make things anymore.

For proof, they pointed to the booming stock market, driven by rising share prices for companies few people ever heard of or knew what exactly they did. Well, the bubble burst and the so-called “new economy” turned out to be just another hype.

Unfortunately, a great deal of damage has been done to our industrial base, and to the jobs, good union jobs, that manufacturing supports. The erosion of America’s industrial base undermines our future economic prosperity and national security.

Just look at the numbers. Of the 1.4 million jobs lost since March 2001, when the current recession began, 1.3 million (over 90 percent) were lost in manufacturing. In fact, American manufacturing has been shrinking for the last 20 years.

The challenge for us is to rebuild America’s industrial base and restore our manufacturing capability.

America’s workers, who have the greatest stake in the future of manufacturing, intend to take the lead in this campaign through their unions. The AFL-CIO has formed a new Industrial Union Council comprised of industrial unions to coordinate our efforts.

We recognize that manufacturing unions, in whatever industry, have common problems that need common solutions. In order to achieve them, we need to work together.

The new Council will be an instrument for us to organize a campaign to save America’s industrial base. We will identify key policies, educate the public on their importance and put pressure on elected officials to support them. We have put forth an agenda that includes:

  • Stop trade deals that encourage U.S. corporations to outsource production for the U.S. market.
  • Reduce the international value of the dollar to make American exports more competitive.
  • Give firms that produce in the U.S. priority for national defense and other government procurement.
  • Provide incentives for long-term investment in manufacturing capacity.
  • Enact national health insurance and pension reforms.
  • Reform the North American Free Trade Agreement and World Trade Organization to ensure that workers’ rights in all countries are protected.
  • Invest in America’s neglected transportation, communications, water systems and other infrastructure.

Achieving these goals will not be easy. But it can be done and it has to be done. We have watched the loss of jobs and lowering of wages from growing imports over the last two decades.

We are convinced that in the absence of new and stronger policies, the U.S. industrial base will continue to decline, with grave economic and strategic consequences for our nation.

Most of the politicians in Washington, unfortunately, underestimate the importance of manufacturing to our economy. And many of the corporate leaders have been so busy lining their own pockets in the short term that they don’t care what happens to the country or even their companies.

Next time you meet a candidate for Congress, ask: “What is your plan for strengthening America’s industrial base?” Press them on the issue and make them think about the consequences to our collective futures if we fail to act.

When they are elected, hold them to their commitments. Together, we will create a new future for America’s economy.