Reviving Manufacturing Would Help All of Us—Not Just White Men

Liza Featherstone

In his crisp, persuasive and deeply reported book, Louis Uchitelle argues that domestic manufacturing is crucial to the welfare of the U.S. working class and that the federal government should intervene decisively to ensure the sector’s health. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Man­u­fac­tur­ing, once near­ly a third of U.S. gross domes­tic prod­uct, has dwin­dled to around 12 per­cent, a punch to the gut for the Amer­i­can work­ing class. Indeed, the suf­fer­ings of that sector’s for­mer work­ers — and of those who live in once-thriv­ing fac­to­ry towns — may be respon­si­ble for Don­ald Trump’s extra­or­di­nary and cat­a­stroph­ic vic­to­ry over Hillary Clin­ton in November.

A bil­lion­aire fix­ing to wage a hor­rif­ic war on the work­ing class now that he is pres­i­dent — by gut­ting its health­care and labor rights — Trump nonethe­less seemed to be lis­ten­ing to these for­got­ten peo­ple dur­ing his cam­paign. He went to their towns. He spoke with com­pas­sion about opi­oid addic­tion. He promised to Make Amer­i­ca Great Again,” a racist slo­gan, to be sure, but also a seduc­tive one, imply­ing that under Trump, Amer­i­can work­ers would enjoy the pros­per­i­ty of bygone man­u­fac­tur­ing days. We would make things again and feel proud of ourselves. 

It was all bull­shit, of course. Trump’s idea of indus­tri­al pol­i­cy is to exag­ger­ate how many jobs in Indi­anapo­lis he saved with a phone call and some tweets. Louis Uchitelle, by con­trast, is seri­ous about what the issue means for Amer­i­can work­ers. In his crisp, per­sua­sive and deeply report­ed book, Mak­ing It: Why Man­u­fac­tur­ing Still Mat­ters, the vet­er­an jour­nal­ist argues that domes­tic man­u­fac­tur­ing is cru­cial to the wel­fare of the U.S. work­ing class and that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should inter­vene deci­sive­ly to ensure the sector’s health.

With­out man­u­fac­tur­ing, the labor force par­tic­i­pa­tion rate” in the Unit­ed States — peo­ple either employed or active­ly look­ing for jobs — has declined dra­mat­i­cal­ly since 1998, as mil­lions of laid-off work­ers have sim­ply dropped out of the work­force. Not only those work­ers, but many of their chil­dren, have been unable to find good jobs. Uchitelle recalls that when he start­ed report­ing on the sec­tor in the 1980s, line work­ers often told him that their chil­dren would do bet­ter” than they had, mean­ing they would make more money.

That did not hap­pen,” Uchitelle writes, and grad­u­al­ly the expres­sion — and the expec­ta­tion — have both disappeared.”

The lib­er­al pun­di­toc­ra­cy — because of Trump’s cyn­i­cal use of the man­u­fac­tur­ing issue, as well as its own con­tempt for work­ers — has been a font of mis­in­for­ma­tion on this sub­ject ever since the elec­tion. Syn­di­cat­ed colum­nist Jill Fil­ipovic exco­ri­at­ed an old order in which white men” with­out col­lege degrees enjoyed unearned ben­e­fits.” Writ­ing in Slate, Jamelle Bouie claimed that jour­nal­ists and politi­cians pay more atten­tion to the woes of man­u­fac­tur­ing work­ers than they should. Why is that? Because, Bouie crows, those work­ers are most­ly white and most­ly male.” Paul Krug­man picked up this bit of insight and trum­pet­ed it glee­ful­ly in his New York Times col­umn. But these demo­graph­ic gen­er­al­i­ties, while crude­ly true, are breath­tak­ing­ly beside the point. About a third of man­u­fac­tur­ing work­ers are women, and African-Amer­i­can men are slight­ly over­rep­re­sent­ed in the sec­tor ver­sus their share of the over­all work­force. Don’t these work­ers also matter?

When elite pun­dits gas on in this man­ner, they ignore many of the Amer­i­cans most dev­as­tat­ed by the loss of fac­to­ries: black work­ers in major cities and the black peo­ple who live in such cities. Uchitelle’s book con­vinc­ing­ly argues that the fed­er­al government’s fail­ure to stop jobs from mov­ing, not only from Detroit to Chi­na, but from urban neigh­bor­hoods to rur­al areas, is a civ­il rights” issue.

On this and oth­er points, Uchitelle makes a per­sua­sive case that, con­trary to what we are always told, the loss of man­u­fac­tur­ing in the Unit­ed States was nev­er a nat­ur­al or inevitable phe­nom­e­non, but a polit­i­cal one. Gov­ern­ments heav­i­ly sub­si­dize this sec­tor, he explains, as they do in all advanced nations that claim man­u­fac­tur­ing as a sig­nif­i­cant share of their econ­o­my. We, the tax­pay­ers, already sub­si­dize fac­to­ries so sig­nif­i­cant­ly, Uchitelle argues, that they are part­ly pub­lic insti­tu­tions. It would be rea­son­able, then, to insist that they serve the public.

We could sub­si­dize, and pro­vide hefty incen­tives for, oper­at­ing in cities where unem­ploy­ment is high, allow­ing unions and nego­ti­at­ing fair con­tracts, hir­ing black work­ers, and, per­haps most crit­i­cal­ly, agree­ing not to pack up in 10 years and move over­seas. As it is, he observes, a patch­work of local sub­si­dies sim­ply pits munic­i­pal­i­ties against one anoth­er, wast­ing pub­lic mon­ey in a bid­ding war to tem­porar­i­ly lure jobs to one small town or sub­urb over another.

The Amer­i­can work­ers suf­fer­ing from the loss of man­u­fac­tur­ing are not only those left unem­ployed, but those who find work in much low­er pay­ing, non-union sec­tors, like retail. But since, as Uchitelle argues, much of what made man­u­fac­tur­ing great in the past was unions, it’s rea­son­able to ask: Do work­ers real­ly need this sec­tor to pros­per? Can’t any sec­tor make the work­ing class great again, with enough polit­i­cal might? Can’t work­ers, through union orga­niz­ing and liv­ing wage poli­cies, win bet­ter pay and ben­e­fits through the grow­ing ser­vice and health­care sectors?

Sure­ly, a day­care work­er con­tributes more to soci­ety than a per­son who makes tele­vi­sions — and we can all agree that it’s sex­ist that she isn’t reward­ed with the respect and com­pen­sa­tion that the lat­ter work­er once enjoyed. For­mer fac­to­ry work­ers employed at Wal­mart have some­times told me they pre­ferred retail work — less repet­i­tive, more social — but wished it paid bet­ter. Fac­to­ry labor is also hard on work­ers’ bod­ies. A mid­dle-aged black Uber dri­ver in Chica­go, who’d worked in that city’s fac­to­ries for years, told me, prais­ing his new gig, This is bet­ter. The wear and tear is all on the car, not on me.” Could Uber dri­vers and Wal­mart cashiers ever become part of a pros­per­ous work­ing class like the assem­bly work­ers of the past?

Of course, the labor left must assume yes, and fight like hell to make it hap­pen. But it’s clear there are struc­tur­al chal­lenges. Work­ers orga­nized for decades to make man­u­fac­tur­ing work pay. Unions have been try­ing for years to orga­nize these new sec­tors, with some suc­cess­es, but it’s clear­ly an even steep­er climb.

As Uchitelle makes clear, part of the rea­son for this is that fac­to­ry work is much more pro­duc­tive” than labor per­formed in stores, restau­rants or taxis, which in eco­nom­ic terms means that it gen­er­ates far more wealth for the employ­er. In 2015, prof­its per employ­ee in the man­u­fac­tur­ing indus­try were more than dou­ble those in retail and more than nine times those of the hotel and restau­rant indus­try. That means there is more mon­ey that can be expro­pri­at­ed by the workers.

Uchitelle also men­tions the mul­ti­pli­er effect of man­u­fac­tur­ing: Man­u­fac­tur­ing cre­ates many oth­er jobs out­side fac­to­ries, includ­ing in trans­port, con­struc­tion, retail or finance. (Uchitelle’s own father, a tex­tile bro­ker, had such a job). Every dol­lar gen­er­at­ed by the man­u­fac­tur­ing indus­try gen­er­ates at least $1.48 else­where in the econ­o­my, more than any oth­er sec­tor. A retail dol­lar, by con­trast, has a broad­er eco­nom­ic impact of just 54 cents.

Uchitelle notes, too, the sol­i­dar­i­ty of work­ing side-by-side on the assem­bly line, mak­ing things togeth­er, as a pow­er­ful dri­ver of the union pow­er of the past. Addi­tion­al­ly, when work­ers per­form­ing man­u­al labor are so pro­duc­tive and cre­at­ing so much wealth for the larg­er econ­o­my, as man­u­fac­tur­ing work­ers were 50 years ago, they are more val­ued and there is broad­er soci­etal polit­i­cal sup­port for their unions and for com­pen­sat­ing them well.

Uchitelle ends on a pes­simistic note: We need a nation­al indus­tri­al pol­i­cy but are unlike­ly to get one. Sur­pris­ing­ly, he doesn’t say much about the oppor­tu­ni­ty we have now (after elect­ing a dif­fer­ent fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, clear­ly) to rein­vig­o­rate the sec­tor along clean­er, green­er lines, mak­ing things like solar pan­els, lithi­um bat­ter­ies, elec­tric cars and wind turbines.

I don’t want to give Trump any pol­i­cy advice — I just want him to go away — but as econ­o­mists like Bob Pollin of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts-Amherst have argued, a Green New Deal” could cre­ate jobs and help address pol­lu­tion and the cli­mate cri­sis all at once. While the plan­et can’t vote, oth­er imme­di­ate ben­e­fi­cia­ries would include dis­placed white Trump vot­ers as well as the black and immi­grant urban fac­to­ry work­ers who have nev­er been part of what might gen­er­ous­ly be called Trump’s vision.

Apart from Uchitelle’s con­vinc­ing argu­ments for the eco­nom­ic impor­tance of man­u­fac­tur­ing, he also sug­gests that when we don’t make things we take less pride in our­selves as Amer­i­cans. Many of us — includ­ing this review­er — feel strong­ly that it’s a slip­pery slope from the pro-union buy Amer­i­can” exhor­ta­tions of the 1980s to xeno­pho­bia and Trump­ism. Still, we shouldn’t dis­miss the role of phys­i­cal­ly mak­ing things in fos­ter­ing social cohe­sion and a cul­ture of respect for the work­ing class. There’s also some­thing healthy about a coun­try in which at least some of the work­force is engaged in build­ing tan­gi­ble stuff that we can all see.

When domes­tic man­u­fac­tur­ing pros­pers, objects you use every day — the car you dri­ve, the shoes you wear — become pro­pa­gan­da for work­ing-class labor and achieve­ments. And while Uchitelle — a for­mer New York Times reporter — is too respectable to say so, that may be one rea­son why man­u­fac­tur­ing has been cen­tral to most large-scale social­ist projects. It may also be why Trump won. 

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