Why America's future depends on rebuilding our factories
Brian Banks and his colleagues at Nipro Glass log 60- or 70-hour weeks right now in a grueling race to produce the glass tubing and vials essential to distributing millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine.
Banks, a maintenance mechanic for nearly three decades, often feared over the years that the Millville, New Jersey, complex would close like so many other glass-making facilities around the country. If it had, America would struggle all the more to turn the corner on a pandemic that's already claimed 282,000 U.S. lives.
COVID-19 laid bare the decades-long decline of manufacturing that left the nation straining to produce the face masks, ventilators, glass vials and other items needed to contain the coronavirus. Now, with vaccines nearly ready for distribution, America has an opportunity to defeat the virus and revive a manufacturing base crucial for protecting the country from future crises.
Of all the responsibilities that President-elect Joe Biden faces upon taking office on January 20, none demands more attention—and requires greater urgency—than ramping up production capacity and rebuilding broken supply chains to keep America safe.
Biden's Build Back Better campaign will make commonsense investments in U.S. manufacturing that put millions to work and ensure a reliable, high-quality supply of critical goods, like the Nipro vials that are used to store not only COVID-19 vaccine but also the other drugs needed to treat hospitalized patients.
"It's comforting for us to know that what we're doing is contributing to something major," explained Banks, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 219M, which represents the 200 or so dedicated workers keeping Nipro's two Millville plants operating around-the-clock.
"There used to be lots of different places where we could get this glass. They've left. If we didn't have this plant, where would we get it from?" asked Banks, who saw his own local shrink by thousands of members as several local glass facilities closed in recent decades.
In the urgent scramble to build stockpiles of vaccine that can be swiftly released for distribution once federal regulators give approval, multiple drugmakers approached Nipro for help.
The company added production capacity to help meet the flood of orders and relied on workers to put in extra shifts. However, as Banks noted, the nation could have more easily addressed the surging demand if it still had the large number of producers it did in years past and marshaled those collective resources to ramp up glass production.
"The product is still being made, just not in the U.S. It could have stayed here," said Banks, who already wonders whether Nipro will embrace America's long-term need for manufacturing and maintain its recently added capacity once the pandemic ends.
Although there are no quick fixes, Build Back Better will not only arrest the long erosion of the manufacturing base but restore America's power to produce critical goods of all kinds.
Because while the pandemic exposed the nation's struggle to produce personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer, pharmaceutical ingredients and even the super-cold freezers needed to keep COVID-19 vaccines viable during transport, that's really just the tip of the iceberg.
Over the past 30 years, as greedy corporations closed thousands of U.S. factories and offshored millions of jobs to exploit cheaper labor and lax environmental laws in other countries, America also gave away the capacity to produce appliances, tires, cars, ball bearings and many other items.
Not even the pandemic, which highlighted the nation's urgent need for more manufacturing muscle, slowed the corporate quest for ever-higher profits. In September, FreightCar America announced it will close its Alabama factory, eliminate 500 jobs and move operations to Mexico by the end of the year. And Mondelēz, a company that previously shifted American jobs to Mexico, just threatened to close two of its five remaining U.S. Nabisco bakeries.
America needs thousands of other manufactured products every bit as much as it needs PPE. It relies on trucks, boxes and containers to move commerce every day, textiles to refurnish homes devastated by hurricanes and steel, aluminum and other materials for military vehicles.
Biden understands that rebuilding the manufacturing base is a top priority that transcends politics. He will require government agencies and contractors to spend taxpayer dollars on U.S.-made materials, products and labor, ensuring America invests in itself.
"You've got to be able to produce things to survive," observed Libbi Urban, vice president of USW Local 9231, noting that America's dependence on foreign suppliers puts the nation at grave risk.
Foreign countries can experience their own production problems, jack up prices during emergencies, deliver inferior products or simply cut off supplies any time they want, noted Urban, who represents workers at two ArcelorMittal steel facilities in New Carlisle, Indiana.
"Do you want to rely on steel from China if you want to make battleships, tanks or aircraft carriers? Do you think they're going to sell you good-quality steel?" said Urban, who chairs her local's Women of Steel program. "If you go to war with somebody, you can't rely on them to make your ships or your tanks."
Even as they put in wearying amounts of overtime, Banks and his colleagues have to maintain constant vigilance and observe numerous safety precautions to protect themselves from COVID-19.
With millions of lives riding on their work, Banks said, they cannot risk a spate of infections that could disrupt production.
Banks hopes America remembers the risks essential workers continue to make. But what he really wants is for the nation to learn from its failures and commit to a full-scale revitalization of manufacturing to keep his members employed—and America safe—long after the threat of COVID-19 is over.
"We're happy to be doing this," he said. "But we are also worried. At some point, when this pandemic ends, are we still going to thrive?"
Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).
This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.
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