By Tom Conway
USW International President
Eager to capitalize on opportunities in the dynamic renewable energy field, the manufacturing company Rotek secured incentives, hired additional workers and successfully launched production of the huge metal rings that keep wind turbines spinning.
But the boom quickly faded. The Aurora, Ohio, plant struggled to compete with unfairly traded, foreign-made products and ended up eliminating many of the jobs it created just a couple of years before.
Ensuring future prosperity will require not only stimulating a manufacturing resurgence but also stabilizing long-term markets for domestically produced goods and raw materials.
Fortunately, President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan provides an unprecedented opportunity to do exactly that.
The plan calls for historic investments in American infrastructure, including roads and bridges, schools and airports, locks and dams, water-treatment systems, communications networks, the electric grid and renewable energy projects, like the wind farms that workers at Rotek strived to supply.
These upgrades would modernize the country and strengthen it for the next crisis while putting millions to work. Biden intends to create and sustain manufacturing jobs by ensuring the nation uses American steel, aluminum, glass, rubber and other raw products — as well as domestically produced components like bearings, pipes, cement and electronics — in infrastructure projects and other initiatives that use taxpayer money.
Last week, he issued new guidance requiring dozens of federal agencies to work with the administration’s new Made in America Office to increase their purchases of U.S. supplies and reduce the occasions when they seek waivers allowing them to procure items outside of the country. The guidance covers the Transportation and Energy departments as well as other Cabinet-level agencies that will play pivotal roles in infrastructure investment.
“It will help us and everybody else tremendously,” said Marcus Graves Jr., president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8565, recalling the devastation he and other workers at Rotek felt when energy companies began buying cheap, low-quality turbine rings overseas.
American workers like Graves possess the expertise, grit and dedication necessary to build the nation’s future.
The USW launched its “We Supply America” campaign to highlight the products that highly skilled union members already make for infrastructure projects and underscore the importance of undertaking publicly funded improvements with U.S. labor, materials and products.
A recent Reuters-Ipsos poll found that 63 percent of Americans want taxpayer dollars to be spent on goods manufactured here because of the high quality, economic benefits and other advantages.
And so it’s no surprise that numerous states, from Republican-dominated Texas to Democrat-controlled New Jersey, are pursuing legislation aimed at buying more American goods and materials for their own construction projects.
Workers in long-term manufacturing jobs will buy homes, cars and other consumer goods, all of which further boost the economy, and the solid tax base they provide will enable communities across the country to thrive.
Members of USW Local 675 and electric bus maker Proterra, for example, are striving not only to build Los Angeles’ clean vehicle industry but also create more vibrant communities and provide new opportunities to local residents.
In December, the union and company partnered with Jobs to Move America on a historic community benefits agreement that will spur the training and hiring of veterans, people of color and other workers facing barriers to employment. The program opens a path to good-paying, long-term employment just as the American Jobs Plan’s incentives for electric vehicle production promise to further drive the industry’s growth.
In addition to the economic benefits, strong, sustainable markets for U.S.-made goods will help to keep America safe.
Shortages of face masks and other goods during the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the urgent need to ramp up manufacturing and build out supply chains so the nation can produce items it needs for emergencies as well as everyday life.
Members of USW Local 5702 understood the dangers of the nation’s withered manufacturing capacity long before the health crisis struck — and they fought hard to preserve a critical piece of the industrial base.
They operate Noranda Alumina in Gramercy, La., the last remaining alumina refinery in the country. Their advocacy and hard work kept the facility operating over the years despite slowdowns, layoffs, industry consolidation, unfair trade and other challenges that threatened the refinery’s survival.
“America is relying on us to keep it going,” said Local 5702 President Montrell Steib, noting alumina has widespread uses in the automotive, electronics, food and medical industries while also playing an essential role in the production of adhesives, paints and fire retardants.
If the refinery closed, he said, the nation would depend on foreign supplies of this critical material. That would put America’s security at risk because other countries can encounter their own production problems or cut off supplies for economic or political reasons.
Now, a national infrastructure program has the potential to create vast new markets for alumina and give refinery workers the security they long sought.
That’s why Steib and the facility’s owner wrote a joint letter to the Biden administration that highlighted both the urgency of infrastructure upgrades and the need to boost American manufacturing.
“It’s a big thing for me,” said Steib, recalling the uncertainty he felt several years ago when a previous owner put the refinery up for sale. During the many months the facility’s future hung in the balance, he often thought, “this might really be it.”
While Graves likewise believes the American Jobs Plan will boost Rotek’s business, it’s just as important to him that the entire nation learn from the mistakes of the past and commit to building stable, diversified markets for U.S. goods.
“Branch out,” he urged. “Build new supply chains. Buy American.”