Eighteen of the nation’s most prominent lawmakers listened last weekend as two Steelworkers from St. Paul testified about the importance of revitalizing the U.S. economy with initiatives designed to grow middle-class manufacturing jobs.
Bob Ryan and David Hallas, members of the United Steelworkers union, addressed the committee charged with drafting the Democratic Party’s platform in advance of its national convention Sept. 4-6 in Charlotte. The Platform Committee met in Minneapolis the weekend of July 27.
Ryan and Hallas offered committee members several suggestions for supporting American manufacturers and the middle-class workers they employ, including infrastructure investments, “Buy American” laws and trade agreements that level the playing field for domestic manufacturers.
“My manufacturing union job at the paper mill has given me a good, middle-class standard- of- living,” Ryan told committee members. “America now desperately needs a Democratic vision for how to address our national and local economic … challenges to keep us a strong economy in the global marketplace.”
Ryan is a member of Steelworkers Local 264, which represents 500 workers at the Rock-Tenn plant in St. Paul’s Midway district. Hallas is a member of Local 7263, representing 350 workers at the Gerdau Long Steel plant, located off Highway 61 and Interstate 494.
Ryan reflected for committee members on what the Rock-Tenn plant has meant to his family, which enjoys a “good, middle-class standard of living” as a result of his job, he said.
But like many manufacturing jobs, Ryan’s has been threatened in an era of global competition, as companies are increasingly able to exploit cheap labor supplies overseas. Rock-Tenn, a paper recycler, competes with companies that collect waste paper from municipalities and, in turn, ship it to recycling companies in China.
“Waste paper is now the largest export by volume to China,” Ryan said. “Instead of exporting waste paper, we should keep it here to create and sustain good jobs for value-added products in the U.S.”
To protect jobs like Ryan’s, he said, Democrats must commit to policies that reward companies for keeping jobs in the U.S. The party’s leaders also must commit to confronting China and other countries that fail to abide by the rules of fair trade, particularly when it comes to currency manipulation and protectionism.
“The Asian tiger refuses to play by the rules of global trade and sees trade as a one-way ticket to our market, without our having the competitive access to their own markets,” Ryan said. “This must stop.”
Hallas offered another suggestion for revitalizing the manufacturing sector: pairing increased investment in public infrastructure with “Buy American” laws that ensure the materials used to build and repair highways, bridges and water systems come from U.S. companies whenever possible.
Hallas talked about the pride he and other workers at Gerdau took in producing the 63-millimeter anchor bar bolts that secure the new Interstate 35-W bridge to bedrock in Minneapolis.
“I remember well that as the steel bars moved from one work station to the next, we steelworkers reminded each other of our skills and the importance of what we were doing,” he said.
Hallas also responded to criticisms of “Buy American” laws – that they create inefficiency and waste, that they could spark trade wars with other countries.
“Most industrialized countries already utilize their own domestic procurement requirements,” Hallas said, pointing to “Buy Canadian” laws and “Buy European” laws in Canada and the European Union. “Providing a preference for domestic content is fully within the rights of the United States.
“As national polling shows, Americans not only support U.S. manufacturers and their workers, but they also favor ‘Buy America’ preferences when their tax dollars are spent on public infrastructure projects. American voters understand what’s at stake: good-paying jobs and the strength of the U.S. economy.”
The U.S. economy’s manufacturing sector was hit particularly hard during the most-recent recession. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry lost 2 million jobs – or 17 percent of its workforce – between December 2007 and December 2009, when U.S. manufacturing employment fell to its lowest level in six decades.
Efforts to stem the tide of job losses took a hit last month, when Senate Republicans blocked a bill that would have eliminated a tax credit U.S. employers use to move jobs overseas – and replaced it with a 20 percent tax break for the costs of moving jobs back to the U.S.