Coronavirus Crisis Highlights Need for National Domestic Manufacturing Strategy
By Robert Martinez Jr., IAM International President
We are facing a public health crisis unlike any North America has faced since the 1918 influenza pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed dangerous national security vulnerabilities in our major industries and supply chains. Domestic sourcing, capable of rectifying America’s dependence on foreign-sourced critical supplies and systems, should be one of our nation’s top priorities.
Coronavirus has touched all our lives as it ravages communities, overwhelms health systems and paralyzes economic activity. Thousands of members of our union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), especially in the aerospace, air transport, manufacturing, defense, transportation, railroad and healthcare industries, are on the frontlines — doing the work that keeps our economy running and all of us safe.
Our members keep the electricity flowing at Tennessee Valley Authority. We continue to operate the nation’s air transport and rail systems. IAM members at General Electric in Wisconsin are racing against the clock to build ventilators to fill a national shortage of machines. As thousands are treated for coronavirus, IAM members are on the frontlines at VA hospitals and civilian healthcare facilities, providing essential life-saving care despite the dangers.
Our members are brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, and neighbors. We share the economic devastation caused by the pandemic’s economic fallout. Thousands of our members sit idle as we shut down some non-essential industries to stem the spread of infection. Similarly, IAM members are represented in the rising numbers of unemployed workers. Our members, and all out-of-work people, can be part of the solution that stems the pandemic and the economic disruption triggered by it.
As painful as the COVID-19 pandemic has been, this crisis has taught us some important lessons.
First, it exposed major weaknesses in our economy. Our response to the coronavirus pandemic has been hampered by offshore production that other countries have commandeered to address their own needs. As a result, our healthcare professionals face severe shortages of personal protection equipment when they need it the most. The disrupted supply chains subjected the larger American public to shortages of medicines, non-medical masks and other basic goods. Our over-dependence on offshore manufacturers and cooperative foreign governments left Americans more vulnerable to this dangerous pandemic.
I recently wrote a letter to President Trump, urging him to use the full powers of the Defense Production Act to dramatically and immediately ramp up production and distribution of personal protective equipment. In the last three years before the onset of COVID-19, over 50 IAM-represented plants had closed, including Electrolux in St. Cloud, Minn., Harley-Davidson in Kansas City and UTC in Chula Vista, Calif. Since the current crisis began, IAM members are being laid off in staggering numbers. Many IAM represented manufacturing plants that now sit quiet have the skilled workforce and the capacity needed to begin producing desperately needed personal protective equipment. This ramped up production and distribution needs to be the new normal in our manufacturing industry.
The CARES Act offers some hope. It is a strong initial federal response that seeks to address the pandemic as well as shore up an economy in free fall, projected to be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. At the heart of this effort is the condition that relief for companies is tied to the retention of workers. The retention of workers is vital to our economy and our national security by protecting vital industries. Similarly, funds from the CARES Act should start to stymie the increasing failure of small business and the alarming growth of the ranks of the unemployed. I stress, however, that this will only work if companies use the relief money to retain workers.
But, federal efforts cannot be confined to providing financial support. We have to simultaneously commit our U.S. tax dollars to deliberately support American jobs and small businesses. We must strategically support American manufacturing. That way, we are better prepared for the next crisis.
Supporting American manufacturing will preserve high-wage and high-skill jobs that have been the backbone of American prosperity since the end of World War II. For example, the U.S. aviation and aerospace industry provides for nearly 900,000 direct jobs and accounts for more than 2.5 million direct, indirect and induced jobs, according to the Aerospace Industries Association.
Mark my words — our country will face tough economic times in the months and years ahead. By promoting federal support that simultaneously supports America’s working families and domestic manufacturing, our country can emerge stronger than ever from this crisis.
Robert Martinez Jr., a former aircraft assembler and U.S. Navy veteran, is International President of the 600,000-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).