Defying popular stereotype, CEOs and labor representatives sat on a panel and largely agreed on major issues confronting industry and working people.
It happened Monday, Nov. 30 as CNBC taped Meeting of the Minds: Rebuilding America in a hall at Carnegie Mellon University before an audience of nearly 600 students, businessmen, steelworkers and other trade unionists.
For the broadcast Dec. 2 at 8 p.m., host Maria Bartiromo said the Steel City of Pittsburgh was chosen because:
"It was here that America's soul was forged."
She assured the audience that the panel of speakers -- Dan DiMicco, President and CEO of Nucor Corp.; Bill Ford Jr., Executive Chairman of Ford Motor Co.; Jeff Immelt, Chairman and CEO of General Electric; John Engler, President and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers; U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, and me -- would tell them how to put America back on track.
Since precious few Americans, even those in the same political party, agree on how to realign America, that's when a typecast smack down between CEOs and unionists might have begun.
But it didn't. That's because on the most crucial issues, like manufacturing strategy and trade policy, the panel pretty much concurred.
For example, this is the United Steelworkers' position on manufacturing strategy: America needs one.
The lack of a strategy handicaps the U.S. when it attempts to compete with virtually every other industrialized nation in the world. They have policies. They've decided which manufacturing areas they're going to emphasize and support. And they do that with taxes, tariffs, loans, grants, even higher education guidelines.
As I said that night:
"We need to have a plan. All the other major countries in the world have plans. I am not mad at China. I am mad at us. They are doing what they need for their people."
Bill Ford and Dan DiMicco joined that position.
Ford said, for example, that he met recently with the president of another country where his company manufacturers cars. That president, who he did not name, asked, "How can I help you?" Ford said that country already had a manufacturing strategy, so he could have a conversation with that government. But, he said, today, in the United States, that same conversation "is almost impossible because there is no policy."
DiMicco agreed. He stressed that a manufacturing agenda must be designed, and he said he believes that is now being done with the support of President Obama's administration. "We need to create jobs for 30 to 40 years, not the short term," he said.
Here's something else we agreed on: trade laws must be enforced and improved. The failure to do so has led to huge U.S. trade deficits and the migration of millions of good, middle-class manufacturing jobs overseas.
Several USW officers went to Washington, D.C. the day after the CNBC show taping to testify before the U. S. International Trade Commission in an attempt to save the U.S. industry that makes specialized steel pipe that is called oil country tubular goods. Between the end of 2008 and September of 2009, this industry lost 2,421 workers because of a killer cascade of unfair Chinese imports.
The USW union is joined in this petition by U.S. Steel Corp., Maverick Tube Corp., Evraz Rocky Mountain Steel, TMK IPSCO, V&M Star LLP, V&M TCA, and Wheatland Tube Corp. Now there are a few more CEOs who agree with the USW.
During the CNBC taping, Immelt conceded that the policy of trying to put factories on barges to ship them overseas in search of the lowest labor costs, "has turned out to be not such a good idea." For manufacturers like GE, and the U.S. workers who lost those jobs, America must enforce trade laws and create a manufacturing policy to establish the incentives essential to keep those factories at home in the U.S.
I have been ranting about trade for a long time. Rarely have I heard someone as angry about it as I am. But DiMicco clearly is. Listen to what he told the CNBC audience:
"You should be a lot ticked off about the failed trade policies in Washington, D.C. . . . That has destroyed the middle class in this country."
One of those from the audience permitted to ask the panel questions seemed more ticked off about the trade union movement than failed trade policies. She asked Ford if shedding the United Auto Workers would enhance his bottom line.
He said no:
"We are very happy with our union work force. There is a misconception that we want to get rid of the union."
He said Ford collaborates with its union workers. He noted that he is a fourth generation Ford and walks through plants greeting many fourth generation UAW workers who are committed to Ford's success. "Together we have gotten a lot done," he said.
Union leaders have no qualms about negotiating with CEOs like Bill Ford for a fair split of the profit-pie in collective bargaining. But first, working together, we must make sure -- with a manufacturing strategy and strong, enforced trade laws -- that there is a pie.