And it starts with creating and strengthening manufacturing jobs.
The nonprofit Century Foundation officially unveiled its new federal agenda for revitalizing America’s manufacturing communities on Thursday, centered on ways to increase the number of high wage jobs and create a pipeline of qualified workers to fill them.
And the foundation attracted some big names to help them do it.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) were among the keynote speakers at a summit sponsored by the foundation in Washington. Biden and Gillibrand — both of whom are being floated as potential 2020 presidential contenders — noted that too many Americans are stuck working low-paying jobs, and elected leaders haven’t done enough to help them.
“Ordinary Americans can do extraordinary things, if you just give them a chance,” Biden said. “This is not beyond our capacity. There is so much we can do to begin to change things.”
Gillibrand echoed Biden’s remarks.
“We have the hardest working people in the world. We have an ideal, it’s called the American dream,” Gillibrand said. “I can tell you, wherever I travel in my state, people don’t believe the dream is for them anymore…They just want someone fighting for them.”
The Century Foundation’s new agenda serves as a blueprint for doing just that, and manufacturing is at the heart of it. Foundational officials spent the past year meeting with hundreds of people in cities like Cleveland, Chicago, and Pittsburgh to help put their ideas together.
One of the things they found is that folks in the industrial heartland haven’t given up on manufacturing. In fact, it’s the opposite.
“American manufacturing has remained resilient. In the darkest days for the industrial heartland, communities refused to accept the notion that manufacturing was a lost cause,” report authors Andrew Stettner and Joe S. Yudken write. “Local and state leaders came up with innovative models to save jobs, retain industry, and shore up regional economies. These efforts have led to a promising, if nascent, manufacturing recovery.”
The key now is to extend the benefits of that recovery to more people, and ensure that the jobs that are created pay enough for workers to actually support their families.
The foundation’s agenda includes five priorities:
- Communities and Employers Must Increase the Pipeline of Qualified Workers;
- Prevent and Mitigate the Displacement of Manufacturing;
- Foster High-Tech Manufacturing;
- Enhance Manufacturing Partnerships;
- Unlock New Sources of Capital
Biden and Gillibrand reflected on many of these recommendations in their remarks. Gillibrand noted that elected officials “stand on the sidelines” when “stable manufacturing jobs” are eliminated and replaced with low-paying jobs. It’s time to change course, she said.
“It’s not a new idea, it’s just an idea we haven’t fought for in a long time,” she said.
During the Industrial Revolution, the United States instituted a universal education system to create the workforce needed to fill new kinds of jobs, like installing electricity into buildings across America, Gillibrand noted. There’s no reason why we can’t do something similar to prepare people for the advanced manufacturing jobs of today, she said.
But there are unique challenges. For one, the decline of labor unions has meant that many workers have lost their voice at the table. Companies now pay their workers less money, instead prioritizing their stakeholders.
“They don’t want a handout, they just want a chance.... Just give me a chance to fight. Give me a chance to get in the game.” Joe Biden
Biden called the lack of bargaining power for workers the main problem in the U.S. economy. Attacks on unions are likely to continue, Gillibrand noted. Opponents will also continue to rise up against policies to benefit workers, from higher wages to increased benefits to efforts to give workers a stake in the companies where they are employed, she said.
Biden added that things like noncompete clauses, mandatory arbitration, occupational licensing, no poach agreements, and rules against discussing pay have also hurt workers.
“What the hell is that about?” he said. “What can that possibly be about, except to suppress wages?”
Still, there’s hope. Workers fought these battles before — Gillibrand pointed out that when Congress took on the task of ending child labor in the 1930s, special interest groups organized to try and stop it.
“Every single time there is a battle that must be waged, it has been fought. It is only won because people are willing to fight with everything they have,” Gillibrand said. “If you are not willing to fight these fights, you will lose them. So take the lessons of our forbearers – it is worth the fight.”