Round about 2:00 on Thursday, August 13, my feet were so light I felt like a cat in snow for the first time, waving my feet around in the air each time they lifted up off an unfamiliar surface. I'd just taken off the heaviest pair of boots I've ever worn, after climbing five flights of stairs in them and then descending one flight at a time. Their heaviness had registered on me slowly, but when I took them off the lightness hit all at once.
During Netroots Nation, the Alliance for American Manufacturingand Campaign for America's Future arranged for a group of bloggers to tour the Edgar Thomson plant -- Andrew Carnegie's first steel mill and still a working, fully modernized plant. It's no exaggeration to say I've rarely felt so awkward, decked out in a bright orange flame retardant jacket and stiff green pants (over my jeans, to add an extra layer of clumsy to the whole thing), with a hard hat that tipped whenever I looked down as I cautiously made my way down another metal grid staircase, safety goggles that just barely fit over my own glasses and slid down my nose at any opportunity, earplugs, gloves, and those boots. But practical difficulties aside, at least everyone else was just as awkward looking.
I was in a group that toured the continuous caster -- another group of bloggers toured the Basic Oxygen Processing shop, or BOP shop. Steel production today is simultaneously as modernized and as old-school industrial as you could possibly imagine. Our tour started in an observation room with a large number of computers and screens for monitoring. But it proceeded on past huge pieces of machinery and giant slabs of glowing, red-hot steel giving off waves of heat such that you felt you might leave the tour with one side of your face sunburned. In the room with the computers, the heavy boots and the helmets and the rest of it felt a little silly and conspicuous. Walking past all that moving, sometimes molten metal, no safety precaution on earth would have felt silly.
It got me thinking about making things. In a restaurant I'm in the presence of chefs making food; at the farmer's market I'm at least engaged in a direct transaction with someone who's been producing food; where else do we regularly encounter stuff being made? I've toured a sock finishing mill in Alabama -- and in the 5 years since, a lot of the sock industry has moved out of the US.
We talk a fair amount about the rise of a service economy and the decline in manufacturing in America. Sometimes the people talking about this even sound like they know what they mean. Sometimes. More often it's a glib brush-off, best translated as "working people should suck it up about the lower wages and none of the rest of us should worry our beautiful minds about where the products we use every day are coming from."
Of course, we should never dismiss service work so glibly. It's neither easy nor unimportant. As the Hotel Workers Rising campaign detailed, repetitive strain injuries are endemic among hotel housekeepers, for instance -- something it's likely few of us thought about as we left our rooms each day to attend sessions at Netroots Nation. But the heat and noise of a steel plant is another thing entirely as far as making you think about the US economy and where it's going and what that means for workers. Those glib dismissers never seem to want to answer basic questions like, are we better off for being in this shiny new service economy? Are people healthier, happier, is inequality less, is the economy better?
Manufacturing isn’t gone from America yet, but it’s at serious risk of leaving.
- Manufacturing employs 14 million people, generates nearly 12 percent of U.S. gross domestic product and accounts for 60 percent of U.S. exports.
- Manufacturing is at least the third- largest sector or greater in 40 states.
- But manufacturing has sharply declined from 27 percent of GDP in 1950 to only 11.5 percent today.
- And a quarter of the nation’s 282,000 remaining manufacturing companies -- 90,000 in all -- are now deemed severely "at risk."
Steelmaking's complete marriage of new technologies with all the characteristics of supposedly old, outdated manufacturing highlights the poverty of the debate around these issues. As our tour pointed out, yes, steel goes into cars and refrigerators and all sorts of things we consume (and probably should consume less of), but it also goes, in huge quantities, into wind turbines. And it's recycled in massive quantities. It's time to stop thinking of manufacturing as something in the past and to think about how we use it moving forward. False distinctions between manufacturing and forward-looking or green technologies, in other words, are the outdated habit we have to move past, not manufacturing.
The tour I took (along with Tula Connell, emptywheel, Dave Johnson, and others) was no doubt intended to start a blogospheric conversation to go with Campaign for America's Future's Making It In America project. But it's a worthwhile conversation to let ourselves be led into. Where do you encounter people making things? Do you think our country's economy is better for having wandered off from making things? Do you think the world's population is better for more steel being made in places without the safety precautions I experienced in Pittsburgh and less of it being made by union workers who come out of the heat and noise and danger of their jobs with a middle-class income? When we talk green economy and green jobs, are we comfortable with that meaning solar panels from China?