A key vulnerability in the American economy could be the country's downfall — will Biden fix it?
Sam Phillips and Trey Maestas fought tirelessly to save TIMET's titanium sponge plant, both to protect the jobs of about 420 coworkers and to safeguard America's future.
The decades-old facility in Henderson, Nevada, was the nation's last remaining producer of the coral-like material essential for manufacturing warplanes, munitions, satellites, civilian jetliners, ships and even joints for artificial hips.
The plant's closing last year—despite the best efforts of Phillips and Maestas of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 4856—left the nation completely dependent on foreign imports of titanium sponge and further decimated manufacturing supply chains crucial to the nation's security.
America can only be truly free if it rebuilds these and other vital lifelines.
On February 24, President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring an immediate, 100-day federal review of supply chain vulnerabilities in industries like computer chips and pharmaceuticals.
That's a welcome start. But it will take a much broader and long-term rebuilding commitment to overcome the damage that decades of neglect and offshoring inflicted on the country's manufacturing base.
Over the past year, widespread shortages of face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the withered state of U.S. industry.
However, the nation cannot regain industrial strength merely by ramping up the assembly of PPE, cars, refrigerators, electronic devices and the other finished products that consumers need for emergencies and everyday life. That would leave the job half done.
The country's security also depends on patching hollowed-out supply chains and building back the capacity to produce all of the raw materials, parts and components, like titanium sponge, that go into those end products.
That means ensuring America not only makes sufficient numbers of face masks and surgical gowns but also continues to produce the homopolymers that go into them.
It means manufacturing and stockpiling hand sanitizer, as well as the springs that operate the hand pumps.
America needs to manufacture air conditioners to cool homes and businesses and earth-moving equipment, wheat combines and elevators to power a diverse economy. But it's just as important to produce on U.S. soil the bearings and other parts that keep these machines running.
"We're at the mercy of whoever is supplying us," said Maestas, vice president of Local 4856 and a TIMET worker for 17 years, noting foreign nations can cut off shipments for economic or political reasons whenever they want. "Our supplies could change at the drop of a dime."
Maestas and Phillips, the Local 4856 president, repeatedly warned last year that eliminating domestic production of titanium sponge posed a grave threat to national security.
"We were keeping planes in the air, military and civilian," Maestas recalled. "I, for one, was proud of what we were doing."
The USW sent an urgent letter to the previous administration, stressing that the importance of titanium sponge "cannot be overstated" and demanding that the plant be saved "to assist in the defense of our nation." But no help ever came.
It wasn't just the USW raising the alarm. The Defense Department has cited unavailability of titanium sponge as a "potential single point of failure" in military supply chains.
Yet TIMET idled the plant anyway. And more losses like this will only render the country weaker and weaker.
"If you can do this to the only titanium sponge plant in North America, what else are you going to do it to?" asked Phillips, who has worked at TIMET for 20 years. "Where does it stop?"
Right now, America's failure to produce sufficient numbers of computer chips hinders recovery from the COVID-19 recession.
Ford and General Motors scaled back production in three states in recent days because of severe shortages of the semiconductors needed to operate vehicle entertainment, navigation and safety systems.
But the bottleneck puts more than automobile production at risk. Computer chips also power vacuum cleaners, kitchen appliances, cell phones and the U.S. space program, among many other industries, so scarcities imperil vast swaths of the U.S. economy as well as millions of jobs.
Biden's executive order requires the government to conduct 100-day reviews of supply chain weaknesses in the computer chip, pharmaceutical, electric battery and rare minerals industries while also launching yearlong analyses of capacity in the defense, transportation and several other industries.
Filling the many gaps will require historic, long-term investments in manufacturing facilities, in innovation and research, and in the roads, ports and other transportation systems essential for moving U.S. goods across the country and around the world.
America's prosperity and security will require shoring up the supply chains in all industries, not just the handful that Biden has highlighted so far. Because while the nation faces urgent shortages of PPE and computer chips today, it could face just as pressing a demand for other products—like components and infrastructure for energy generation—tomorrow.
"We make important stuff," said Paul Bartholomew, president of USW Local 2285, whose 200 members produce valves, spacers and compressor disks for gas turbines, along with products for the aerospace and defense industries, at Wyman-Gordon in Massachusetts.
"You just saw what happened in Texas," Bartholomew said, referring to a collapse of the state's power grid that plunged millions into darkness during frigid winter storms in February. "You need electricity. You need heat. We assist in power generation."
After decades of decline, Bartholomew said, the nation now seems "on the brink" of understanding that it's let far too much manufacturing capacity slip away.
Phillips hopes the nation will yet realize the mistake of idling titanium sponge operations in Nevada. But once a plant like that goes idle, it takes time to build the capacity back.
Phillips estimates it would take two years to have the facility fully operational again. And in a crisis, America may not have that time to spare.
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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