Confronting the Next Crisis
By Tom Conway
USW International President
Workers at the Sibanye-Stillwater complex in Montana mine minerals used to fight cancer, produce life-saving surgical instruments and manufacture the wind turbines and solar panels essential for the clean economy.
They touch so many facets of American life that Ed Lorash, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 11–0001, considers their work essential to national security.
Lorash knows that without strong supply chains stretching from mining to manufacturing, the nation is vulnerable, not just to a shortage of consumer goods but to any number of crises from pandemics to natural disasters that could undermine America’s safety. And only revitalizing an industrial base decimated by bad trade will eliminate the country’s dangerous dependence on foreign products and protect America’s freedom.
“It keeps your enemy at bay,” Lorash said of a robust manufacturing sector. Foreign producers can cut off supplies for economic or political reasons, he noted, or raise prices on a whim.
“I just think we really need to look at making things here,” he said. “Then, if we get a surplus, we can sell it.”
Over the past quarter century, greedy corporations closed hundreds of U.S. manufacturing facilities and offshored more than a million jobs to countries with low wages, weak labor laws and poor environmental standards.
But that wasn’t the only blow to America’s security. China and other competitor nations compounded the damage by dumping unfairly traded goods in U.S. markets, killing millions more jobs and further decimating the domestic manufacturing base.
COVID-19 threw the damage into sharp relief. Hollowed-out supply chains left the nation unable to produce the face masks, ventilators and other medical equipment essential for fighting the pandemic.
Next, shortages of semiconductors, resulting from pandemic-related manufacturing slowdowns overseas, disrupted the U.S. auto industry and decimated inventories of cars and trucks.
America once made 37 percent of the world’s computer chips, used not only in vehicles but electronics and myriad other high-tech products. Now, the U.S. accounts for only 12 percent of global production and buys much of what it needs from overseas.
The dozens of huge cargo ships floating off the West Coast provide yet another stark reminder of Americans’ overreliance on overseas products.
So many of those vessels — laden with billions of dollars in foreign-made clothing, electronics, furniture and other goods — converged on California ports at the same time that they created an unprecedented traffic jam.
As the ships take turns docking and unloading, millions of Americans continue to wait for goods and supplies they need to run their businesses, operate their households and care for their families.
Stuck somewhere in the supply chain are motors that Sibanye-Stillwater needs for Jeep-like vehicles used to transport miners underground. Without the motors, the machines sit idle.
“They’re small,” Lorash explained of the vehicles. “They’re durable. They’re very low-emission,” he said, and critical to responsible mining.
Ports have moved to around-the-clock operations and taken other steps to ease the congestion, but that does nothing to address the underlying factors that caused the gridlock in the first place.
President Joe Biden has taken initial steps to build back the nation’s manufacturing base and patch supply chains, such as directing new investments in the manufacturing of essential drugs, batteries and minerals.
The impending national infrastructure program also will help to reinvigorate manufacturing by generating demand for steel, aluminum, glass, paint and other products.
But only long-term investment — and continuous stewardship — will provide the industrial base and supply lines necessary for fighting diseases, bouncing back after natural disasters and meeting the daily challenges of a global economy.
That means locking down every link in supply chains and ensuring, for example, that America can produce not only platinum and palladium but the steel, aluminum, fiberglass and other parts needed for surgical instruments, wind turbines, solar panels, autos, electronics and other finished products.
“It’s all so interdependent,” noted Matthew Bashaw, president of USW Local 01–01494, which represents about 65 workers who make citric acid at the Tate & Lyle facility in Dayton, Ohio.
The issue isn’t only about ensuring the availability of goods. As Bashaw pointed out, controlling supply lines end to end also means maintaining the quality and purity of goods Americans use and consume.
He and his co-workers follow strict on-the-job safety standards and meticulously safeguard the quality of their products, including a food-grade variety of citric acid used in items like soft drinks and macaroni and cheese.
But Bashaw noted that other countries tried to undercut domestic producers over the years and asked, “What are their regulations? Are they meeting standards consumers look for in their products?”
The platinum, palladium, copper, silver and nickel that USW members at Sibanye-Stillwater produce will become ever more important as the nation makes more electric vehicles and increasingly grows a clean-energy economy.
Lorash knows his co-workers are up for the challenge of supplying the country’s needs. He wants to see a manufacturing revitalization so that union workers at other companies have their own opportunities to help build a stronger, safer America.
“Keep it at home,” he said.