Save Missouri's auto parts jobs

Wed, 03/14/2012

St. Louis Post Dispatch, March 14, 2012

Guest commentary: Save Missouri's auto parts jobs

By Scott Paul

They still don't get it. Candidate after candidate pledges allegiance to American manufacturing and professes a love for "Made in America." But when the going gets tough, no presidential candidate can match this rhetoric with action. In a state with a strong manufacturing base, that's just unacceptable, especially because we know that more than 36,000 jobs in Missouri's auto parts sector are at risk because of China's cheating.

Missouri is an important part of the motor vehicle industry, with a network of auto suppliers connecting to every aspect of automotive production. Because auto parts is an important segment of the state's economy, Missouri voters need to know some key facts before they head to the polls. The truth is that the auto sector is just getting back on its feet after a near-death experience. We now see auto assembly factories humming again in the United States.

But the real auto employment — where 75 percent of the jobs exist — is in the auto parts sector. These are the factories, large and small, that produce aluminum wheels, brake pads and the thousands of other parts that go into making an automobile. This sector is under attack from China. We've seen imports of Chinese auto parts surge by 25 percent in each of the past two years. We've seen our trade deficit in auto parts with China grow nearly 900 percent in just 10 years. Yet no other major auto-producing nation — Germany, Japan, South Korea — has such a trade imbalance; in fact, they export more to China than they import.

China is not penetrating our market the old-fashioned way, by out-competing us. Instead, Beijing has pumped $27 billion of subsidies into its auto parts sector, with an additional $10 billion planned. And, through policies that have been documented in great detail by our own government and outside investigators, China blocks our exports of autos and auto parts while favoring its own industry, in direct violation of the commitments it made to free markets when it joined the World Trade Organization.

As a result, the linkage between growth in auto assembly jobs in the United States and auto parts jobs has been broken. Auto parts jobs traditionally grow at a faster pace than assembly jobs, but since 2009, the opposite has been true. And that's because Chinese imports have begun surging into our market.

We have a long history of letting these jobs leave — just ask laid-off Missouri factory workers. The state has shed about one-third of its manufacturing jobs over the past decade as our trade deficit with China shot through the roof.

But we are not helpless. There is something we can do now to stop the otherwise inevitable flow of auto parts jobs to China. Our trade laws are there for a reason: to ensure a level playing field for American workers and businesses. But who can we count on to act?

While Mitt Romney talks a tough game against China on its undervalued currency, he opposed relief for tire workers in America when the industry faced surges of Chinese imports. Rick Santorum thinks Mitt Romney's position on China is too strong, and believes tax cuts alone will keep industry here. Even President Barack Obama, who has approved some trade sanctions on China in tires and other sectors, hasn't fully delivered on his promises to get tough, refusing six times to designate China as a currency manipulator, which it most certainly is.

I hope each of the candidates will stand up and say they will defend America's auto parts workers and businesses. The president can initiate a trade action against China to stop its auto parts subsidies, open its market and grow jobs in Missouri. More than 36,000 jobs in Missouri depend on it.

Scott Paul is executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing in Washington, D.C.

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