We Need a Manufacturing Strategy—And CEOs Agree

Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President December 2, 2009

Defy­ing pop­u­lar stereo­type, CEOs and labor rep­re­sen­ta­tives sat on a pan­el and large­ly agreed on major issues con­fronting indus­try and work­ing people.

It hap­pened Mon­day, Nov. 30 as CNBC taped Meet­ing of the Minds: Rebuild­ing Amer­i­ca” in a hall at Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­si­ty before an audi­ence of near­ly 600 stu­dents, busi­ness­men, steel­work­ers and oth­er trade unionists.

For the broad­cast Dec. 2 at 8 p.m., host Maria Bar­tiro­mo said the Steel City of Pitts­burgh was cho­sen because: It was here that America’s soul was forged.”

She assured the audi­ence that the pan­el of speak­ers – Dan DiM­ic­co, Pres­i­dent and CEO of Nucor Corp.; Bill Ford Jr., Exec­u­tive Chair­man of Ford Motor Co.; Jeff Immelt, Chair­man and CEO of Gen­er­al Elec­tric; John Engler, Pres­i­dent and CEO of the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Man­u­fac­tur­ers; U.S. Labor Sec­re­tary Hil­da Solis, and me — would tell them how to put Amer­i­ca back on track.

Since pre­cious few Amer­i­cans, even those in the same polit­i­cal par­ty, agree on how to realign Amer­i­ca, that’s when a type­cast smack down between CEOs and union­ists might have begun. 

But it didn’t.

That’s because on the most cru­cial issues, like man­u­fac­tur­ing strat­e­gy and trade pol­i­cy, the pan­el pret­ty much concurred.

Real­ly.

For exam­ple, this is the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers’ posi­tion on man­u­fac­tur­ing strat­e­gy: Amer­i­ca needs one.

The lack of a strat­e­gy hand­i­caps the U.S. when it attempts to com­pete with vir­tu­al­ly every oth­er indus­tri­al­ized nation in the world. They have poli­cies. They’ve decid­ed which man­u­fac­tur­ing areas they’re going to empha­size and sup­port. And they do that with tax­es, tar­iffs, loans, grants, even high­er edu­ca­tion guidelines.

As I said that night:

We need to have a plan. All the oth­er major coun­tries in the world have plans. I am not mad at Chi­na. I am mad at us. They are doing what they need for their people.

Bill Ford and Dan DiM­ic­co joined that position.

Ford said, for exam­ple, that he met recent­ly with the pres­i­dent of anoth­er coun­try where his com­pa­ny man­u­fac­tur­ers cars. That pres­i­dent, who he did not name, asked, How can I help you?” Ford said that coun­try already had a man­u­fac­tur­ing strat­e­gy, so he could have a con­ver­sa­tion with that gov­ern­ment. But, he said, today, in the Unit­ed States, that same con­ver­sa­tion is almost impos­si­ble because there is no policy.”

DiM­ic­co agreed. He stressed that a man­u­fac­tur­ing agen­da must be designed, and he said he believes that is now being done with the sup­port of Pres­i­dent Obama’s admin­is­tra­tion. We need to cre­ate jobs for 30 to 40 years, not the short term,” he said.

Here’s some­thing else we agreed on: trade laws must be enforced and improved. The fail­ure to do so has led to huge U.S. trade deficits and the migra­tion of mil­lions of good, mid­dle-class man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs overseas.

Sev­er­al USW offi­cers went to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. the day after the CNBC show tap­ing to tes­ti­fy before the U. S. Inter­na­tion­al Trade Com­mis­sion in an attempt to save the U.S. indus­try that makes spe­cial­ized steel pipe that is called oil coun­try tubu­lar goods. Between the end of 2008 and Sep­tem­ber of 2009, this indus­try lost 2,421 work­ers because of a killer cas­cade of unfair Chi­nese imports.

The USW union is joined in this peti­tion by U.S. Steel Corp., Mav­er­ick Tube Corp., Evraz Rocky Moun­tain Steel, TMK IPSCO, V&M Star LLP, V&M TCA, and Wheat­land Tube Corp. Now there are a few more CEOs who agree with the USW.

Dur­ing the CNBC tap­ing, Immelt con­ced­ed that the pol­i­cy of try­ing to put fac­to­ries on barges to ship them over­seas in search of the low­est labor costs, has turned out to be not such a good idea.” For man­u­fac­tur­ers like GE, and the U.S. work­ers who lost those jobs, Amer­i­ca must enforce trade laws and cre­ate a man­u­fac­tur­ing pol­i­cy to estab­lish the incen­tives essen­tial to keep those fac­to­ries at home in the U.S.

I have been rant­i­ng about trade for a long time. Rarely have I heard some­one as angry about it as I am. But DiM­ic­co clear­ly is. Lis­ten to what he told the CNBC audience: 

You should be a lot ticked off about the failed trade poli­cies in Wash­ing­ton, D.C….That has destroyed the mid­dle class in this country.

One of those from the audi­ence per­mit­ted to ask the pan­el ques­tions seemed more ticked off about the trade union move­ment than failed trade poli­cies. She asked Ford if shed­ding the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers would enhance his bot­tom line.

He said no:

We are very hap­py with our union work force. There is a mis­con­cep­tion that we want to get rid of the union.

He said Ford col­lab­o­rates with its union work­ers. He not­ed that he is a fourth gen­er­a­tion Ford and walks through plants greet­ing many fourth gen­er­a­tion UAW work­ers who are com­mit­ted to Ford’s suc­cess. Togeth­er we have got­ten a lot done,” he said.

Union lead­ers have no qualms about nego­ti­at­ing with CEOs like Bill Ford for a fair split of the prof­it-pie in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. But first, work­ing togeth­er, we must make sure – with a man­u­fac­tur­ing strat­e­gy and strong, enforced trade laws – that there is a pie.

This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers Blog.

Leo Ger­ard is inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union min­er; Ger­ard start­ed work­ing at a nick­el smelter in Sud­bury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union’s ranks to be appoint­ed the sev­enth inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent Feb. 28, 2001. For more infor­ma­tion about Ger­ard, vis­it usw​.org.
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