A conference in Pittsburgh urged policies and strategies that will boost the country’s workforce.
“Manufacturing a Better Paying Pennsylvania,” held Tuesday at United Steelworkers International’s headquarters, drew union leaders, progressive think-tank analysts, politicians and others to launch a national initiative to create high-paying manufacturing jobs and transform the regional and national economy.
“We can do better, and this conference will kick off a sustained effort,” said Mark Zuckerman, president of The Century Foundation.
A lot of the discussion focused on what could be done to help communities left behind catch up, including using fiscal stimulus to jumpstart the economy and employing more worker-friendly policies. So did Tuesday’s release of two reports, “Revitalizing America’s Manufacturing Communities” and “A Vision for a High-Wage America,” both by The Century Foundation and the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.
“We have an opening, an opening to talk about industrial policy again,” said Tom Croft, president of Swissvale-based Steel Valley Authority.
Croft said that some towns and cities, particularly in the industrial heartland that includes southwestern Pennsylvania, have yet to recover from the Great Recession that began in 2007. He tied that to what he called manmade disasters over the course of the past decades, including by Wall Street, poor public policy and corporate decisions.
United Steelworkers President Leo W. Gerard said that a national strategy to improve the country’s infrastructure was needed, particularly in what he called the industrial heartland. He suggested allowing pension funds' capital to be accessed for infrastructure projects and manufacturing.
Employing capital to help is happening with the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, which uses pension capital from 400 union funds to financing housing development that is built by union labor.
“The recovery of the industrial Midwest from the great recession … has really been hindered by a lack of flexible capital,” said Ted Chandler, the trust’s COO. It has financed about 500 projects in the Midwest and created union jobs.
Gerard and others took aim at free-trade policies as bad for workers.
“These trade deals have done an unbelievable shift of wealth” away from the general workforce and toward a limited amount of people, Gerard said.
State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said manufacturing is crucial for the future of the region and the country. Ward — who is co-chair of the state senate’s manufacturing caucus — said that domestic manufacturing must be protected when trade laws are violated, particularly in the steel industry. She also said that there needs to be a tax policy that encourages investment and an energy policy that supports reliable and affordable energy for manufacturers.
Inclusion and building a more diverse industrial workforce was also a topic. Dewitt Walton, an Allegheny County council member and vice president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, said artificial barriers for success have to be removed to help the disadvantaged.
“They just want a quality of life, and it’s our responsibility to make sure they get a level playing field,” Walton said. He pointed to an eight-week A. Philip Randolph Institute career program called Breaking the Chains of Poverty that builds the skills for employment in construction and building trades. He said the program has trained 400 people and has a track record of creating family-sustaining jobs.
A diverse base of manufacturing not only is good in its own right, but it also feeds the establishment of other companies, as well as being a key factor in attracting other technological and manufacturing companies from around the country and overseas, DCED Secretary Dennis Davin.
"We must never rest in making our manufacturing industry succeed," Davin said.