Suddenly, manufacturing is back -- at least on the
election trail. But don't be fooled. The real issue isn't how to get
manufacturing back. It's how to get good jobs and good wages back. They
aren't at all the same thing.
Republicans have become born-again champions of American
manufacturing. This may have something to do with crucial primaries
occurring next week in Michigan and the following week in Ohio, both of
them former arsenals of American manufacturing.
Mitt Romney says he'll "work to bring manufacturing back" to America
by being tough on China, which he describes as "stealing jobs" by
keeping value of its currency artificially low and thereby making its
Rick Santorum promises to "fight for American manufacturing" by
eliminating corporate income taxes on manufacturers and allowing
corporations to bring their foreign profits back to American tax free as
long as they use the money to build new factories.
President Obama has also been pushing a manufacturing agenda. Last
month the President unveiled a six-point plan to eliminate tax
incentives for companies to move offshore and create new lures for them
to bring jobs home. "Our goal," he says, is to "create opportunities for
hard-working Americans to start making stuff again."
Meanwhile, American consumers' pent-up demand for appliances, cars,
and trucks have created a small boomlet in American manufacturing --
setting off a wave of hope, mixed with nostalgic patriotism, that
American manufacturing could be coming back. Clint Eastwood's Super Bowl
"Halftime in America" hit the mood exactly.
But American manufacturing won't be coming back. Although 404,000
manufacturing jobs have been added since January 2010, that still leaves
us with 5.5 million fewer factory jobs today than in July 2000 -- and 12
million fewer than in 1990. The long-term trend is fewer and fewer
Even if we didn't have to compete with lower-wage workers overseas,
we'd still have fewer factory jobs because the old assembly line has
been replaced by numerically-controlled machine tools and robotics.
Manufacturing is going high-tech.
Bringing back American manufacturing isn't the real challenge,
anyway. It's creating good jobs for the majority of Americans who lack
four-year college degrees.
Manufacturing used to supply lots of these kind of jobs, but that was
only because factory workers were represented by unions powerful enough
to get high wages.
That's no longer the case. Even the once-mighty United Auto Workers
has been forced to accept pay packages for new hires at the Big Three
that provide half what new hires got a decade ago. At $14 an hour, new
auto workers earn about the same as most of America's service-sector
GM just announced record profits but its new workers won't be getting much of a share.
In the 1950s, more than a third of American workers were represented
by a union. Now, fewer than 7 percent of private-sector workers have a
union behind them. If there's a single reason why the median wage has
dropped dramatically for non-college workers over the past three and a
half decades, it's the decline of unions.
How do the candidates stand on unions? Mitt Romney has done nothing
but bash them. He vows to pass so-called "right to work" legislation
barring job requirements of union membership and payment of union dues.
"I've taken on union bosses before, " he says," and I'm happy to take
them on again." When Romney's not blaming China for American
manufacturers' competitive problems he blames high union wages. Romney
accuses the President of "stacking" the National Labor Relations Board
with "union stooges."
Rick Santorum says he's supportive of private-sector unions. While in
the Senate he voted against a national right to work law (Romney is now
attacking him on this) but Santorum isn't interested in strengthening
unions, and he doesn't like them in the public sector.