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"High Wage America Project" Takes Aim at Revitalizing U.S. Manufacturing

How can the United States recreate high-wage, secure jobs for all Americans? That’s the question being asked by the “High-Wage America Project” led by The Century Foundation’s (TCF) Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative (RGI). The initiative kicked off on June 13, 2016, at the “Fighting for a High-Wage America: Reinvesting in Innovation and the Industrial Heartland” event on Capitol Hill. Sponsored by TCF, RGI, the Northeast-Midwest Institute, the National Call to Action, and the Steel Valley Authority (SVA), the event brought experts, advocates, political leaders, industry and labor partners together to explore proposals to create good jobs for Americans. The event also presented research on “Why Manufacturings Jobs Are Worth Saving,” charting the 945,000 job rebound in a sector that continues to deliver good jobs to Americans, especially in the nation’s heartland.

Congressional Leaders Embrace Century’s Call for New High-Wage Strategies for the Heartland

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Congressmember Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) delivered the opening remarks of the program. Senator Casey discussed the evolving nature of the relationship between wages and productivity in America and the implications it sets for workers. After World War II, wages and productivity grew in tandem. However, since 1973, productivity has grown while wage growth has been stagnant. Casey was also concerned about the volatility of worker’s incomes. A 2015 Federal Reserve paper found that in the two preceding years, almost a quarter of male workers and 43 percent of female workers experienced at least a 25 percent decrease in earnings. He suggested that the United States needs an overarching trade policy that could guide trade negotiations and bring wage stability and growth back to America.

Congressmember Marcy Kaptur (D-OH). Source: The Century Foundation

Representative Kaptur spoke from the heart of the deep ties that the people of her district have to the steel and automotive industries. Kaptur discussed the need for bipartisan trade reform. Recent trade agreements have left American industries vulnerable to disruption from unlawful foreign trade practices, such as dumping. She noted that in 2011, every $1B in the U.S. trade deficit resulted in 5,000 jobs lost. Kaptur emphasized the importance of negotiating trade deals with partnering nations that are committed to abiding by the rule of the law and democratic principles.

Jeff Madrick: America Is a Low-Wage Nation by Choice

Jeff Madrick, director of RGI, made the case for progressive government intervention to bring high-wage jobs back to America. Today, America is a low-wage nation by choice, he argued, although that has not always been the case. In recent decades, the Federal Reserve has excessively focused on targeting inflation at the expense of employment. There has been an erosion of progressive taxes and weakening of labor regulations. Austerity politics has led to the weakening of fiscal policy, while high-wage industries like manufacturing have struggled under a bipartisan political doctrine largely uncritical of free trade. As a result, many Americans have seen their wages stagnate or decline. Madrick argued that it is critical for government to recommit to progressive taxes, reinvest in public infrastructure and revitalize manufacturing if the United States is to be a high-wage nation again.

Revitalizing manufacturing, investing responsibly in infrastructure and affordable housing, and growing the green economy are critical to bringing high-wage jobs back to middle America.

Tom Croft, executive director of the SVA and Managing Director of Heartland Capital Strategies (HCS), spoke about the importance of engaging communities and organized labor to revitalizing the economy of America’s Heartland. Croft highlighted the work of the SVA, which provides layoff aversion assistance to local manufacturers throughout the United States to enable workers, companies, and communities to survive in a shifting economy. SVA leads two multi-stakeholder coalitions, HCS and the National Call to Action, which are actively supporting the High-Wage campaign. Croft argued that revitalizing manufacturing, investing responsibly in infrastructure and affordable housing, and growing the green economy are critical to bringing high-wage jobs back to middle America.

Expert Panel Dissects Manufacturing’s Challenges

The highlight of the event was the panel discussion on the future of manufacturing and high-wage jobs in America. The panel featured Fred Block, Ph.D., research professor of sociology at the University of California at Davis, Madeline Janis, executive director of Jobs to Move America, and Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

The panel was moderated by Amy Goldstein, a veteran reporter at the Washington Post. After the Great Recession, she spent three years in Janesville, Wisconsin looking to understand the impact of the closing of the oldest running General Motors plant in the country. Goldstein reminded the audience of the stark human reality associated with the sudden decline of American manufacturing at the beginning of the century. Reflecting on Janesville, she stated, “As we’re talking about policy, about ideas, and about theory, these are people’s lives are at stake.”

Fred Block made the case for a paradigm shift in how the United States stimulates economic growth, stating that “…big corporations are no longer the center of the economy in the way that they once were. Its investment from the public sector, from small and medium enterprises, from non-profits, that’s going to be key to economic revitalization.” America’s obsession with corporate tax cuts as a driver of economic growth has come at the expense of public infrastructure spending. To revitalize manufacturing, he believes infrastructure spending should target green technologies, public transit, dilapidated physical infrastructure including educational institutions, and communications infrastructure in rural America.

Increasing the presence of women in manufacturing requires not only a reevaluation of how we frame manufacturing as a business, but addressing the pervasive levels of sexism and sexual harassment experienced by women in manufacturing and creating labor regulations that acknowledge today’s realities of child and elder care.

Madeline Janis highlighted the work of Jobs to Move America, notably their recent publication entitled “Inclusive Public Procurement” (IPP). IPP assists in enabling all levels of government to deliver public works projects through procurement practices that drive economic growth and create high-wage jobs for vulnerable populations, including women and people of color. Janis spoke to the challenges that women face in accessing good manufacturing jobs. She noted that 7 percent of middle-skilled manufacturing workers are women, stating that “93 percent of middle-skilled manufacturing jobs are held by men. That’s not just underrepresentation, that’s almost exclusion.” She argued that increasing the presence of women in manufacturing requires not only a reevaluation of how we frame manufacturing as a business, but addressing the pervasive levels of sexism and sexual harassment experienced by women in manufacturing and creating labor regulations that acknowledge today’s realities of child and elder care.

Panelists Fred Block and Andrew Stettner. Source: The Century Foundation

TCF Senior Fellow Andrew Stettner highlighted the recent Century Foundation report “Why Manufacturing Jobs are Worth Saving,” focusing on the often dismissed potential of manufacturing in the future of the U.S. economy and jobs. Stettner emphasized that while manufacturing was hit hard in the first decade of the century as a result of trade policy, it has grown since 2010 with the rest of the economy, adding nearly a million jobs. He argued that reshoring can be a reality, as foreign investment in manufacturing is growing and when all costs are considered that many goods are currently cheaper to produce in the United States. However, Stettner cautioned that revitalizing manufacturing would also depend on addressing future workforce challenges, including the shortage of two million workers anticipated as current workers retire.

TCF also convened a pre-event meeting with key partners, including labor and industry coalitions, to strategize and commit to collaborating on feasible solutions to revitalize manufacturing and create high-wage jobs for Americans.

Those at the table echoed the themes of the day’s event, emphasizing the critical importance of good manufacturing jobs to America’s heartland and the need for approaches that ensure a more inclusive and diverse future for manufacturing. Of particular interest was the potential of the Maker Movement to encourage the rebirth of urban manufacturing. Partners spoke of the need to think critically about new solutions that revitalize manufacturing and reframe the industry as future oriented and essential to the U.S. economy in the twenty-first century.

On to the Heartland

RGI will continue to pursue the High-Wage America Project by producing research on how to create and maintain quality jobs and by working with local partners in the Heartland to host events that bridge the gap between state, local and national policy stakeholders. TCF invites comments and participation in this critical campaign (contact stettner@tcf.org). RGI will also pursue other high-wage strategies in a conference in the late fall.

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