October 23, 2003
As the "jobless" recovery continues, the job cleansing of the U.S. manufacturing base tops 2.7 million. These millions now without jobs remain faceless, statistical footnotes to mainstream media reports about how the recession ended in 2001, production is on the rise, and how job losses are singularly attributable to productivity gains. The outsourcing of the American dream for small manufacturers proceeds unabated.
Yes, the issue is on the radar screen. People are talking about it. E-mails are racing around the Internet. Letters are being written. Industry associations are working hard to educate, raise awareness, and get attention. The Metals Service Center Institute (MSCI) organized a Town Hall Meeting in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., in August that drew 300 people.
President Bush announced over Labor Day that some day he will create a position under Commerce Secretary Don Evans to "focus on the needs of manufacturers." U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow was in Beijing just after Labor Day addressing the key issue of the value of China's currency. Some elected officials, such as U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Ill., are aggressively fighting the good fight.
But for every Manzullo there's more than one congressman who fails to get involved with this issue. Fortunately, on Sept. 9, several senators proposed an across-the-board tariff of 27.5 percent on Chinese imports in an effort to pressure China to abandon its practice of pegging the Yuan to the American dollar.
And, for every job lost there's a gaggle of consumers, largely uninformed, shelling out their tax-cut windfalls at Wal-Mart. They're buying goods at the euphemistically insulting "world" prices that are being shoved down the throat of the industrial supply chain. How are these "world" prices set? It's not by the invisible hand of the market. Suppliers to the multinationals don't dare raise a stink for fear of losing their customers altogether over an issue that threatens to divide them.
I showed up at MSCI's Town Hall Meeting expecting to hear more of what I've been hearing for some time now: We are engaged in economic warfare, losing major battles, and nobody cares. I left convinced that it's time to hold the federal government accountable for its role. I'm pessimistic about whether the sea change required to help the 50-employee job shop in America will ever materialize.
This is not to suggest fabricators should sit back and wait for their own demise. The "innovate-or-die" mantra remains valid and has been proven over and over again. Successful fabricators will be telling their stories from the FMA booth at FABTECH® in Chicago in November. It's an opportunity to learn how people like you are solving problems like yours, and it promises to be well worth the trip.
In fact, on the very morning of the MSCI Town Hall Meeting, I met with a Chicago-area fabricator who told me the story of how his multinational customer forced him to buy sheet metal parts from China when his operation was unable to meet "world" prices. Watch these pages for what happened next.
But it's also clear that the federal government—across both parties—has failed small manufacturers by fostering an economic climate that saddles them with escalating costs over which they have no control. International competitors are taking advantage of this climate to beat the brains out of U.S. manufacturers. Fabricators in survival mode, paralyzed by trade policies, taxes, regulation, and other indirect costs, view "innovate or die" as a euphemism as insulting as "world" pricing.
So what's next? Education and focus. Get informed on the intricacies of currency manipulation, which artificially and unfairly deflates the prices of foreign goods. This is the insidious, not-so-invisible hand that sets "world" prices. It appears to be the one issue that is most affecting the ability of America's small manufacturer to compete. It is one of the most egregiously unfair trade practices, and the issue over which Washington has control and ultimate accountability.
Currency manipulation chokes the life out of the little guy, who suffocates in silent fear of offending the multinational customers on which his livelihood depends. In the meantime, in spite of growing international pressure, China has indicated it has no plans to change its policy, and there is no shortage of Western economists, analysts, and mainstream media columnists supporting that stance.
Flood your politicians with paper, not e-mail, which is easily deleted, filtered, or otherwise filed into the ether. A show of hands at MSCI's Town Hall Meeting revealed a pitiful minority who had written to their elected officials. Heed the advice of the one politician who actually showed up in Oakbrook Terrace, Sen. Dale Risinger, who happens to be the only engineer ever elected to the Illinois Senate.
Don't simply forward sample form letters. Those get stacked into a pile, the height of which will determine whether the issues have electoral legs. Personalized letters, says Risinger, get real attention. How are these issues affecting you personally, your family, your employees, their families, your community, and your vote? Use the sample letters, but personalize them.
Make sure your communications are serious, rational, informed, and knowledgeable. Make clear you understand the issues and you are ready to inflict accountability at the voting booth.
The complexities of this problem, which require the political process for any solution, put small manufacturers in a frighteningly weak, underdog role. The industry is so fragmented that it is difficult to drop a unified message on that island of apathy and special interests known as the Beltway. Add to that the fact that one of the most urgent remedies—ending currency manipulation—is anathema to multinational corporations, who do argue (convincingly) with a unified voice, that they must be competitive in global markets.
The nation's small manufacturers have little real political clout and are kicked to the curb by high-profile corporate lobbies and special interests that simply do not care about their plight. Not enough congressional districts with sizable manufacturing constituencies exist to create a groundswell, and right now Washington is preoccupied with two things: the war on terror and re-election. This desire to be re-elected represents an opportunity to be heard.
Will mountains of letters be enough? Can any call to action emanating in Congress muster the necessary support? Will the statistical footnotes go unread and remain faceless?
It may require throngs of people, registered voters, showing up in flesh and blood on Pennsylvania Avenue before the Beltway bureaucrats, mainstream media, and Wal-Mart shoppers across the land truly understand that, left unchecked, the outsourcing of the American dream will come home to roost for all us, when we no longer actually make anything in the U.S.
It just may take a march on Capital Hill to attract enough attention in time for next year's election. I can think of 2.7 million formerly hard-working Americans, for starters, who would appear to have no scheduling conflicts or prior commitments.