American Manufacturing Doesn't Need a Bailout, Just a Level Playing Field

05/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Tuesday, I joined more than 1,000 people-mostly laid-off Steelworkers and their families in a dusty, windswept lot where piles of subsidized, imported steel pipe from India destined for a major oil pipeline served as the backdrop.

Just a mile or two away stood the Granite City, Illinois works of United States Steel, a massive facility that is now shuttered because of the recession. When it is operating, the mill employs over 2,000 workers and makes a quality, competitive product.

The familiar noises of a busy, industrial town have vanished in Granite City. The hum of machines is nowhere to be found. The downtown is now a ghost town. It would be easy for the laid-off workers and their families to simply stay at home, hang their heads, hope for the best, and complain about the hand they've been dealt.

But that's not what I saw. Instead, I saw hundreds upon hundreds workers and family members gathered together, unified in their call for jobs, justice, and a change in the way we do business. They were angry, but not xenophobic. Upset about unfair trade, but unafraid to compete. Not asking for a bailout, only an opportunity. Concerned about their own jobs, but downright scared about the future their children and their community might face.

Across the Mississippi River from Granite City lies the famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis. To me, the Arch is a symbol of hope, of a new day dawning, of a call to move forward. It's the gateway to what's possible in America, one of the simplest yet most meaningful structures in our nation. And it's made with a lot of steel: stainless, rebar, and carbon.

All of these things are visible from 15,000 feet in the air, in a plane on my way back to DC: the massive Granite City works, the piles and piles of green pipe, and the Gateway Arch. But you can't see humans from that altitude. Yet I'm afraid that's the view too many Americans have of our manufacturing crisis.

The pipe for TransCanada's oil pipeline project should have been made in America. But TransCanada chose the low road and selected the subsidized Indian pipe for the vast majority of the project. While Granite City doesn't make pipe, it is capable of making the hot-rolled steel that eventually becomes the pipe.

It might be too late to ditch this pipe. But it's not too late for TransCanada to make the right call on its new Keystone XL pipeline. And it's not too late for federal, state, and local officials to tell TransCanada that if the company wants to secure permits and right-of-way, they need to make the pipe in America.

Besides pipe, we make a lot of other things with steel. Everything from durable goods, automobiles and commercial jets to the tanks and warships that keep us safe. But we are losing the capacity to manufacture at an alarming rate. Our nation has lost 1.5 million manufacturing jobs since the recession began in December 2007. Forty thousand factories have closed over the past decade.

One lesson of the recession is that we need to make more things here. Developing new technology and consuming alone do not make for a stable economy, but that's been our economic strategy for the past decade. Manufacturing generates real wealth, family-supporting jobs, and exports. It does matter where things are made.

Granite City is ground zero in the crisis in manufacturing. To recover, it will take a trade policy that insists on reciprocity and fair play. India subsidizes its steel and should be held to account. Other countries that cheat should understand the consequences. It will take smarter domestic policies on health care, taxes, and energy to make manufacturing more competitive. Finally, it will take sizable investments in infrastructure, innovation, and education. This will only come about through the initiative and collective action of Americans across the political spectrum.

But it starts with a single act. Paul Revere's "midnight ride" sounded the alarm in the American Revolution. Ironically, he was also a famous metal manufacturer after the war. Perhaps Granite City's Paul Revere is Jeff Rains, a retired steelworker. On his way to a meeting in February, Jeff saw the green pipe from India loaded on rail cars, took a couple of pictures, and alerted his local union. The rest is now history.

We owe it not just to Jeff Rains and the thousands of unemployed workers in Granite City, but also to our children and grandchildren to make things in America again. American manufacturing and American workers will do their part by producing quality, competitive products. We'll even remind people why it is so important to make things here. We need a government as willing to fight for manufacturing as it is willing to give out $700 billion to Wall Street. The difference is this: we don't need $700 billion, we just need a level playing field.