Saving U.S. Manufacturing for the Big One
The Denver Post
August 4, 2010
By Al Lewis
At 72, Paul J. Darling still runs a steel plant outside of Chicago.
His father ran it before him.
Corey Steel Co., producer of cold-finished steel bars, somehow keeps humming beside the working-class neighborhoods of Cicero, Ill., despite decades of foreign competition.
Darling has seven grandchildren. As plant after plant has shuttered across the Midwest, it's a wonder he didn't just take up golf at a Florida country club.
During his 50 years in the business, Darling has battled the outright dumping of foreign steel on the U.S. market. He's seen the demise of some of his customers, mostly machine shops that use his steel bars to make precision parts. And lately he's been weathering the Great Recession that began in December 2007.
"This cycle has been particularly difficult," said Darling, who has served on the boards of larger companies, including Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. and Alco Standard Corp.
"In September 2008, it was obvious that everything was going down," he said. "We dropped 40 percent."
Privately held Corey Steel had to lay off about 75 people at a plant where employees have historically held on to their jobs for decades.
"I loathe having to lay off employees," said Darling, who still employs about 240. "It hurts me as much as it hurts them."
Generally, layoffs do not hurt the CEO as much as the employees who take the direct hits, but Darling was affable enough to convince me on this point. He reminded me of the late Dave Thomas from Wendy's, a no-nonsense executive who would gladly don an apron over his shirt and tie to cook you a cheeseburger.
"Right now, we're not creating enough jobs to meet the demand for just the young people who are entering the marketplace," Darling said. "We've got to do more."
I had come to Corey Steel to watch U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Democrat from Chicago's Southwest side, launch his plan to save America's ever-shrinking manufacturing base. It's called House Resolution 4692, the National Manufacturing Strategy Act of 2010.
Generally, a House resolution is about as good as a New Year's resolution. What's interesting about this one is suggested by its title: It is 2010 and unemployment is about 10 percent and, um, hello?, America still doesn't have a national manufacturing strategy.
Instead we have a mishmash of disorganized initiatives doled out on an ad hoc basis, often to the most powerful lobbyists. And even some initiatives that benefit foreign competitors.
"These job losses were not inevitable," said Lipinski, whose father was a Congressman before him. "Washington has failed to defend American manufacturers."
Lipinski's resolution directs the president to convene a National Manufacturing Strategy Task Force to develop overarching goals for manufacturing. His hope is that all future legislation would be weighed against such goals, establishing at least some sane organizing principles for the future.
The resolution has already passed the House and awaits consideration in the Senate.
Lipinski has billed it as bipartisan, and he has kept it general enough to exclude debates about protectionism, Chinese currency manipulations, bailouts or even the naive notion that America is simply maturing into a service economy.
"There are others who believe a job is a job is a job," Lipinski said. "I don't believe that a job at McDonald's is the same as a job working in a manufacturing plant."
One more decade like the last one and the loss of manufacturing jobs won't just undermine American workers, but national security as well.
"We will no longer be manufacturing what we need to defend ourselves," Lipinski said.
Darling's father helped the U.S. government procure steel during World War II.
Where are we going to get the steel for World War III?
Contribute Volunteer Lawn Sign Get Updates