Reviving manufacturing demands accountability

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Anne LeGrand, vice president and general manager of GE Healthcare Global X-ray division, told the Wall Street Journal that the company expects to develop 20 to 25 percent of the division’s products in China during the next three to five years.

Will GE’s engineering and managerial staffs in Waukesha end up being cut by the same outsourcing boomerang that has decimated the jobs of GE production workers who manufacture standard X-rays, MRI equipment, CT scanners and X-ray tubes at several plants in Milwaukee? 

GE’s move to outsource engineering undercuts the all-too-frequent narrative blaming unions for the decline of our domestic manufacturing. Engineers at the company are not organized by the union, but they will never be able to compete on wages and benefits with their counterparts in China.

In December 2009, I joined other labor leaders and several CEOs at a meeting chaired by Vice President Joe Biden where the administration unfolded its framework for revitalizing American manufacturing. Everyone present enthusiastically supported an increase in funding for the National Science Foundation’s program that encourages partnerships between academic institutions and employers to improve the skills of science and engineering technicians. 

There is clearly a disconnect between the forward-looking, innovative framework that the administration unfolded nearly two years ago and the continued moves by GE and other companies to outsource production and engineering capacity. 

I don’t pretend that President Obama has an easy job in marshalling a revival of U.S. manufacturing to reduce our nation’s trade deficit with China. Daily, we hear the hypocrisy of some leaders in Congress who claim to champion the interests of U.S. workers but shut down any discussion of investing in the kinds of programs presented in his administration’s progressive framework.

But the White House’s public pronouncements about reviving the manufacturing sector and its support for notorious outsourcers are often in direct conflict. Such is the case with a recent $10 million cash prize awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy to Philips Lighting North America for its development of an LED light bulb. 

Philips claims the money will be used to set up a U.S. plant to produce the bulbs. The U.S. Department of Energy says there is no requirement or restriction on how Philips, which has shut down four U.S. plants in the past four years, will use the $10 million award.

Philips is the same Netherlands-based multinational that is currently shutting down a lighting fixture manufacturing plant in Sparta, Tenn., and moving production to Mexico. The Sparta plant, one of the company’s most productive, is one of the last major manufacturing plants in a quadrant of the state that has lost 8,900 jobs from factory closures since 2000.

I firmly believe that partnerships between government, industry, academia and labor are absolutely essential to putting Americans back to work and restoring economic prosperity. But we need help from the Obama administration to ensure that our partners are accountable for their actions—even wealthy and powerful ones like GE and Philips.

Edwin D. Hill is International President of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), representing approximately 725,000 members in construction, utilities, manufacturing, telecommunications and other sectors throughout North America.