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Obama Promises to Bring Back Manufacturing Jobs, But His Plan Gives More Tax Breaks to Corporations

If Obama does win a second term, it will be fascinating to see how working-class Americans respond when his soaring rhetoric collides with the reality of his timid program.

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates.

MILWAUKEE—President Obama's appearance last Wednesday at the Master Lock plant here—during which he repeatedly highlighted the company's decision to bring back about 100 jobs from Mexico and China and called for the restoration of America's manufacturing sector—uncorked a lot of hope among local workers.

A crowd of about 1,000 Master Lock workers (the plant employs 412 members of UAW Local 469) and guests roared in approval as the president described the fundamental changes needed in the American economy. He  thundered:

Milwaukee, we are not going back to an economy that's weakened by outsourcing and bad debt and phony financial profits. We need an economy that is built to last, that is built on American manufacturing, and American know-how, and American-made energy, and skills for American workers, and the renewal of American values of hard work and fair play and shared responsibility.

But if Obama does win a second term, it will be fascinating to see how working-class Americans respond when the president's soaring rhetoric, which is rekindling dreams of a manufacturing renaissance, collides with the cold reality of Obama's timid program.

Obama concisely offered a powerful critique of corporate greed and domination of the economy by an overgrown financial sector, while promising a renewal of American manufacturing hit by a loss of 5.5 million jobs since 2000. The message resonated intensely with the audience, which has seen Milwaukee rapidly wither from an affluent industrial center into the fourth poorest city in the nation as it lost 80 percent of its manufacturing jobs during the last 35 years.

Yet even as industrial cities and factory towns declined as much of America's productive base went abroad, leading Democratic policymakers (see here and here) have callously dismissed the importance of American manufacturing. These Democrats-—far removed from the consequences of "free trade"—have even added legitimacy to corporations' exploitation of undemocratic conditions by supporting more NAFTA-style free-trade agreements.

While Obama himself has recently pushed three new toxic trade agreements through Congress, his main message has focused on the central need for rebuilding the U.S. manufacturing base. By stressing the restoration of 100 jobs to Milwaukee's desolate inner city, Obama has underscored the importance of manufacturing to America.

The president has channeled into the deep hunger for the day when "America made things," when Milwaukee's skilled workforce labored in "the machine tool capital of the world," and years of job security could not be erased by a few computer keystrokes in New York or Houston that closed a Milwaukee plant and shifted jobs to Mexico or China.

Implicitly in Milwaukee and more directly in speeches elsewhere, Obama has revived hope that America's enormous inequalities can be overcome with the strengthening of the manufacturing base. On Wednesday, President Obama pointed to 23 consecutive months of economic growth, with a heavy emphasis on the first growth in manufacturing employment since 1990. The auto industry alone added 160,000 jobs since the bailouts of GM and Chrysler in 2009.

"It's hard to get a well-paying job in Milwaukee these days," sighed William Schnach, 58, who a UAW Local 469 member at Master Lock for the past 14 years. "Master Lock is one of last places that is hiring. Briggs and Stratton, Allen-Bradley [now Rockwell], Allis-Chalmers, AO Smith, the jobs are all gone. But Master Lock, you work leaner and smarter, and that's why they're still here."

Master Lock has fostered a more productive workforce by paying the tuition of workers who attend local technical colleges to pick up additional skills and knowledge, Schnach said.

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