Trumka: America’s economic lead is not a given

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Below are excerpts of a May 9 speech by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to the Center for National Policy, a Washington think tank that in the past has concentrated on national security issues. The center decided this year that the economy itself is a national security issue. Trumka's remarks follow:

"A recent issue of manufacturing and technology news posed a question about the U.S. tool and die industry -- about whether it is too depleted to play a role in America's manufacturing recovery," Trumka began.

"That question, and similar questions about scores of other industries, presents a truth we too often prefer to avoid: We can no longer take America's economic preeminence for granted.

"Not long ago, we could, and we did. America designed, engineered, and made things put to use all around the globe, and as a result, our economy was the strongest in the world. That economic preeminence cemented our international standing.

"America's rise in the world was fueled by the tremendous economic capability of a democratic republic, and then strengthened by universal suffrage, universal education, and a strong labor movement. European powers raised standing armies while we built steel mills and public universities. Yet when democracy needed an arsenal, we converted our great economic power overnight into military power.

"Much has changed since America's rise in the 20th century, but one reality remains: Sustainable prosperity rests on national manufacturing capacity.

"In this respect, the U.S. took a wrong turn. Compared to other industrialized countries, we have experienced larger trade deficits as a share of our economy and a steeper decline in manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years. That decline threatens our national security in three ways.

"First is the direct loss of jobs, purchasing power and tax base. The second threat is our diminished capacity to meet our own national defense manufacturing needs, especially in times of crisis. The third threat is the vulnerability of our economy to supply chain disruptions arising far from our shores.

"These are sobering concerns. But I'm not here to offer visions of doom and gloom; for the first time in a generation, the president of the United States made revival of manufacturing a centerpiece of national policy, and it's about time. President Obama has proven himself to be a genuine leader on manufacturing and national security [who is] willing to make hard decisions necessary to revive manufacturing.

"The toughest and most important decision was to save the American auto industry from the disastrous Wall Street actions that led to the collapse of the financial system in 2008. That alone strengthened and retained one-quarter of the manufacturing jobs in the United States.

"The collapse of the domestic auto industry could well have been the point of no return. We would have become the only major world economy without a domestically based auto industry. But it didn't happen.

"Instead, those same companies are now growing and moving into the technological lead in key areas like plug-in electric hybrids. The fact that Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors are alive and prospering today is at least as important to our national security as the fact that Osama bin Laden is dead.

"Yet much more work remains to be done to repair the structural vulnerabilities of our industrial economy. On Mar. 31, a fire at a chemical plant in western Germany killed two workers and halted production of a vital component of the resin used in the fuel lines and braking systems of cars.

"Over the weeks since that fire, auto parts suppliers have scrambled for that resin. That one factory fire, it turns out, threatened the incredibly tight supply chain of the global industry and could potentially slow production of thousands of vehicles.

"In a global economy, we will always be somewhat vulnerable to events outside our borders, just as other countries found themselves vulnerable after 2008 to our failure to regulate our financial sector. But the unprecedented hollowing out of our manufacturing economy since 1980 - and in particular since 2000 - left our economy even more at-risk than our competitors to supply shortages of key products.

"Only with a viable and vibrant manufacturing base can the U.S. prosper in a world of rising economies. A more prosperous world where more people have access to the good things in life is good for our national security, but only if we act to ensure that America shares in that prosperity, rather than being the loser in a zero-sum game.

"That's why we must press our elected leaders to focus public policy on providing broadest possible support to help both U.S. and foreign companies manufacture in the United States. The good news is, most Americans get the importance of manufacturing.

"Too many watched quietly as national policy has been shaped by companies that largely moved offshore. The interests of those companies are not aligned with the interests of the majority of Americans who work for a living. That has to stop.

"In thousands of cities and towns, the factories and plants that produce things are key to helping the U.S. maintain our economic and diplomatic place in the world. When those facilities and those workers - well trained and tech-savvy - operate at capacity, we can't be beat.

"But when we allow our industrial capacity to be hollowed out, our trade deficit to balloon, our consumer economy to become dependent on foreign credit, we find ourselves vulnerable. That's the situation President Obama inherited when he took office."

Photo: STock photo of Trumka, via Transport Workers Union

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