United Steelworkers

Labor Day is a happy civil holiday – most people enjoy a long weekend, and the holiday is filled with barbecues, parades and activities that allow Americans to enjoy the end of summer. But the reason for the holiday is to celebrate workers and their economic and social contributions to our society. And it is the manufacturing industry and its millions of workers that continue to contribute to the U.S. quality of life in a major way. 

According to The Manufacturing Institute, the United States still has the largest manufacturing sector in the world, and its global market share – about 20 percent – has held steady for 30 years. So, when news reports come out saying that U.S. manufacturing jobs are going away, it is cause to worry. United Steelworkers (USW) understands the need for a strong economy very well because it is the largest industrial labor union in North America, representing 1.2 million active and retired workers from a diverse range of industries.

In a recent conversation with Manufacturing Today, USW President Leo Gerard discussed what needs to happen to encourage more growth in manufacturing and what gives him hope that despite challenges, the U.S. economy will remain a global leader.

Manufacturing Today: What do you believe the government can do to encourage companies to bring jobs back to the United States?

Leo Gerard: To start, the Republicans can quit filibustering and stop keeping every jobs bill from going forward. Just recently, it was the third or fourth time that President Obama and the Democrats tried to move a bill through Congress that would stop rewarding companies that move jobs overseas. But the Republicans stalled it.

The government needs to support provisions that will give preference to American projects that use American-made products, and ensure any waivers are fully vetted.

Look at the construction on the [San Francisco] Bay Bridge right now – they are using Chinese steel to build it. And it’s not like they are saving money by buying the steel from China – that project is millions over budget and behind schedule. We need an aggressive effort by the current administration to support Buy America initiatives. Secretary Ray LaHood has been very supportive of these programs, and we’d like other departments to follow the DOT model.

MT: What can U.S. companies do to move their overseas operations back here and continue to be profitable?

LG: The whole thing is very misguided. The government should have programs to support companies working here, and corporations should support any program that encourages manufacturing in the United States.

MT: Are there any specific sectors of the manufacturing industry that you think are more likely to thrive in the current U.S. market?

LG: Not specifically. The main thing is that corporations have to join in – join United Steelworkers and the President – by going after China. China wants to do a $100 billion trade in auto parts by 2015, and we can’t let that happen. If they do that, it will have a major impact on our market and it will undermine the superior skills of our workforce.

MT: What do you say to all the U.S. companies that say they can’t find enough skilled workers to fill jobs?

LG: In some ways, that’s a cop out. If that is the case, it’s because too many corporations have dumped their training programs. It used to be that companies would have all the skilled employees they needed, because they trained them so well in-house.

We still have the best schools in the world, so it shouldn’t be hard to find skilled workers. There are a lot of people with H-IB visas in the U.S. high-tech sector, but companies should focus on finding workers here at home. If companies want skilled workers, they should help build that workforce through training.

MT: What impact will the 2012 presidential election have?

LG: I feel very strongly that the Democratic House of Representatives – when Nancy Pelosi was the speaker – was pushing the right agenda. But currently, there is a record number of filibusters by members of the Senate’s GOP to block progress in American manufacturing.

Look at our schools – 50 percent of the schools in America are 50 or more years old. To retrofit them to meet today’s building and energy standards would add thousands of jobs to our economy. More contractors would be working, and manufacturers would be producing all of the materials, equipment and systems. Universities would be busy, researching and developing better products, materials and systems  to use.

Think about how many jobs we would create if we upgraded urban infrastructure. There’s also a demand to modernize the energy grid. But every time the Democratic administration tries to move this job-creation agenda, the GOP does everything to stop this progress. The GOP would rather have millions out of work just so they can use that to get one man’s job.

MT: What makes you optimistic about U.S. manufacturing?

LG: I’m happy to see that in spite of all of the obstruction that we’ve endured by the GOP, there are still many, many companies that are bringing their operations back to the United States, and that gives me hope that things will continue to improve.

Even so, action needs to be taken. The government has to stop giving companies tax breaks for moving jobs out of the country. It needs to reward them for coming back and staying here. We also have to fight China’s actions against us. We have to modernize our infrastructure, and if the government encourages this, companies will boost the economy by investing in R&D.

All of this requires political will. [U.S. Sen.] Mitch McConnell said that the single most important goal of the GOP was to ensure President Obama is a one-term president. The GOP is prepared to make the country suffer to block our president from getting a second term.

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