Restoring America’s Manufacturing Might
By Tom Conway
USW International President
Montrell Steib recalls the young electrician rattling off his expertise in the latest technology and systems, hoping to make a good impression during his job interview at Atlantic Alumina in Gramercy, La.
But a supervisor took the wind out of the worker’s sails, saying he’d be working on old and temperamental equipment at the nation’s last remaining alumina refinery and that keeping the aging facility operating with Band-Aids would be a far cry from what he expected.
Steib, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 5702, relates that story to underscore the feeble state of U.S. supply chains and the need to equip America’s workers with the tools and resources needed to compete globally.
Although both the Senate and House each passed long-overdue legislation to overhaul the nation’s manufacturing base, only the House’s version, the America COMPETES Act, provides billions in direct investments essential to preserving critical industrial infrastructure like the Gramercy refinery.
“This is it. This is all we have,” said Steib, one of about 270 USW members who work there, noting that losing the facility would make America entirely dependent on other nations for the alumina essential to the automotive, health care, consumer goods and numerous other industries.
The long decline of American manufacturing constitutes a national security threat that recent shortages of face masks and semiconductors threw into sharp relief. America lags behind other countries not only in the production of these goods but in the manufacturing of aluminum and steel, commercial shipbuilding and the mining of essential minerals.
“Together, a U.S. business climate that has favored short-term shareholder earnings (versus long-term capital investment), deindustrialization, and an abstract, radical vision of ‘free trade,’ without fair trade enforcement, have severely damaged America’s ability to arm itself today and in the future,” the Defense Department warned in a report last year.
The America COMPETES Act would provide loans and grants for upgrading manufacturing facilities so that workers like Steib no longer have to scrounge parts or cannibalize some machines to keep others running. The investments also would enable employers to expand production, which Local 5702 members see an urgent need to do.
“Everything we can make is already sold,” Steib observed of current market conditions. “I wish we could open up more alumina facilities in the U.S.”
The House bill also would create the U.S. Office of Manufacturing Security and Resilience to monitor supply chain strength, patch holes and ensure America can ramp up production when security, public health or other pressing needs require it.
Greg Herrick and his co-workers at Timet in Toronto, Ohio, have repeatedly witnessed the need for this kind of strategic oversight.
In 2020, Timet ended production at its titanium sponge plant in Henderson, Nev. It was the last facility of its kind in the nation, and now Herrick and his colleagues, members of USW Local 5644, have to source foreign-made sponge to manufacture the titanium sheet and plate needed for products like military jets and armor.
“I think it’s crazy to have to rely on another country to provide the products you need to defend your own,” said Herrick, the local’s safety chairman, Rapid Response coordinator and former president.
In the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which disrupted global supply chains, civilian aircraft makers turned to U.S. titanium manufacturers for more of the sheet and plate they should have been getting domestically in the first place.
“We want the work. Our quality is a lot better than foreign quality,” Herrick said.
As Senate and House members merge their respective bills into final legislation, it’s important to remember that rebuilding the nation’s industrial base will be a losing battle without stopping the serial trade cheaters who undercut U.S. producers and kill thousands of American jobs each year.
The America COMPETES Act contains critical commitments missing from the Senate’s bill, such as provisions accelerating unfair trade investigations and making it easier to file new cases against repeat offenders who move manufacturing from one nation to another — a practice known as “country hopping” — to evade penalties already imposed on their products. The House legislation also would enable the Commerce Department to crack down on China’s practice of subsidizing producers beyond its borders and then dumping those goods in U.S. markets.
And it would extend the Trade Adjustment Assistance and Health Coverage Tax Credit programs that enable workers to rebuild when unfair trade steals their livelihoods and upends their lives.
“These are all things that would help secure the future for my members and the rubber and tire industry,” observed Terry Cunningham, president of USW Local 715L, which represents about 1,300 workers at the BF Goodrich tire plant in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Those workers feel like they’re under constant attack. Cunningham has participated in five unfair trade cases since 2015, but despite wave after wave of penalties, offenders in various countries keep sneaking low-cost tires into America.
When the U.S. government initiates an enforcement action, “it holds them off for a little while, then they find a loophole and get in somewhere,” Cunningham said. “Let’s stop these repeat offenders and speed up enforcement.”
Steib and his 270 USW co-workers have fought not only equipment problems but periodic slowdowns, layoffs, ownership changes and even bankruptcy proceedings to keep the Gramercy refinery open over the years.
They’ve held up their end. Now, they expect Congress to deliver a holistic fix to manufacturing and trade crises that put the nation’s security, and the livelihoods of millions of workers, at risk.
“The future is on the line,” Steib said.