Around the time President Obama was kicking off trade talks with Chinese leaders late last month, more than 100 workers in Lexington, Ky., found out they were about to become the latest victims of our existing unfair and unbalanced trade policies.
General Electric Co. announced on July 23 that it was shutting down its Kentucky Glass Plant in July 2010, the last G.E. plant in the United States to make glass covering, known as envelopes, for household incandescent bulbs.
Incandescent bulbs - first invented by Thomas Edison more than 100 years ago - are becoming obsolete thanks to new energy regulations which encourage the use of more energy efficient fluorescent bulbs, known as CFLs, the vast majority of which are made in China.
Plant employees, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, knew that the clock was ticking on their jobs unless they could convince G.E. to retool the facility to make CFLs domestically. They even agreed to a voluntary wage freeze and eased restrictions on overtime in the hope that G.E. would prolong the facility's lifespan.
If the plant was in Germany or South Korea, the workers would have likely found an ally in their national government, which would see losing essentially an entire manufacturing line to an economic competitor as a huge blow, especially in the midst of a recession.
Inexplicably, the United States continues to be the exception, leaving the glass plant workers with little in the way of options or allies to save their jobs.
As IBEW Representative Bill Dietz, who works with the plant's employees, put it:
There's no one really pushing the company to make the bulbs here. It's a shame that our political leaders haven't been more proactive about finding ways to keep the work in the U.S.
The development of a new line of green bulbs could have been an opportunity to revitalize electrical manufacturing in North America, but the lack of any kind of substantial federal inducement to build green products at home, in addition to existing trade laws stacked against domestic production, means the great job drain of the last 20 years continues unabated.
The across-the-board decline of manufacturing is harming our emerging green energy sector as much as it has hurt older sectors like steel and auto.
To G.E.'s credit, Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt has recently taken some tentative steps to expand domestic production of some of the company's other product lines but it's not clear that other companies are interested in following his lead.
According to the Apollo Alliance, more than 70 percent of America's clean energy systems and components are produced abroad, while fully half of America's existing wind turbines are manufactured overseas.
Green legislation isn't going to do working families or the environment much good if it results in the loss of good-paying jobs to a nation with nearly nonexistent environmental regulations. According to the China Business Review:
(P)enalties for noncompliance with some of China's environmental laws are so low that it is often cheaper not to comply and pay fines than to undertake the actions necessary to meet the statutory mandates.
And pollution in China translates into pollution at home. A recent report by the Alliance for American Manufacturing quotes a statistic from the Environmental Protection Agency that one-fourth of the dust and soot clogging up the air in Los Angeles comes from China.
But despite the devastation of our manufacturing sector and the loss of new energy jobs, "protectionism" is still a dirty word in Washington, D.C.
It's certainly not in Beijing where currency manipulation and massive industrial subsidies, not to mention lack of workers' rights, have given China a leg up in the global marketplace and a head start in creating a green energy workforce.
As United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard and Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, recently wrote:
All these impediments (by the Chinese government) have been well documented by U.S. trade officials, but the mere act of identifying these practices is now viewed as protectionism, even though taking action to eliminate them would expand world trade, reduce global imbalances and preserve the free market.
The free-trade fundamentalist dogma is so powerful in Washington that when some congressional representatives tried to insert language into last winter's stimulus bill that would require federal money to be invested - when financially feasible - in American-made products, it set off a firestorm of controversy - despite the fact that most industrialized nations rely on domestically-made goods for government-funded projects.
Manufacturing is moving into a new, energy-efficient stage, but it's in danger of leaving out the American worker altogether without an aggressive approach by our elected officials to encourage its domestic growth.
There are some hopeful signs. Sen. Sherrod Brown's Investments for Manufacturing Progress and Clean Technology (IMPACT) Act would open up federal loan money to assist small and medium size manufacturers in developing energy efficient technology, while earlier this month, President Obama made available $2.4 billion in grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to companies developing batteries for hybrid cars.
But more is needed.
When G.E. began producing the incandescent bulb more than 100 years ago, it kicked off an industrial revolution that ended up putting thousands of residents of the United States and Canada to work at decent, well-paying jobs.
If we want to make sure our current energy revolution does the same, our political leaders need to make a comprehensive commitment to develop a balanced framework for global trade that will rebuild our economy, reduce the planet's carbon footprint and help keeping working men and women on the job.
Follow Edwin D. Hill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/IBEW