The manufacturing mystique

BY SHAY O'REILLY | JULY 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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Rick Santorum is sounding a bit like Barack Obama.

Sure, he included the requisite references to “our resource-constrained environment,” but when I spoke with the former senator (and current 2012 GOP contender) in a Cedar Rapids hotel Wednesday, he could’ve been beating out a more pessimistic version of Obama’s June 24 speech on American manufacturing.

Emphasizing education, particularly at community colleges: Check. Centering manufacturers at the center of American market nostalgia: Check. Economic turf wars aside (“I do not believe in Keynesian pump-priming,” Santorum said), they’re both striving to rekindle a faith in American-made products, right in time for the annual bemoaning of American flags surreptitiously stamped “Made in China.”

And they’re right: One of the pillars of the modern American economy, starting with our unrivaled World War II home-front machine, has been manufacturing. Which is why it’s odd that candidates — and Republicans in particular — pay so little attention to improving the livelihoods and working conditions of the average blue-collar manufacturing worker.

But this is all part of a strange dual representation in our country: On one populist hand, the representation of the American worker as a homegrown, white-bread-and-red-meat hero; on the other well-manicured hand, economic policies that have facilitated a jobless recovery, with higher productivity and CEO compensation but stagnant employment and wages.

One minute, Santorum condemned the National Labor Relations Board as an example of regulatory agencies co-opted by outside interests; the next, he talked up the importance of community colleges as gateways to manufacturing success. (Of course, both he and Obama are right on this count — skilled manufacturing is the only way forward.)

The political elite, regardless of party affiliation, uses factory workers as props or abstractions. Democrats like Barack Obama use them as props or backdrops for speeches about the economy. Republicans justify tax cuts for big businesses with the worn “trickle-down” explanation, ignoring that, while profits have increased for corporations in the last year, salaries for the average worker have remained steady.

Labor unions, ideally the champions of the blue-collar worker, have been political pawns for quite some time: Democrats champion labor involvement in the political process because it typically benefits them, and Republicans seek to pass legislation crippling unions for precisely the same reason. Neither party is willing to accept the potential for broader labor unions to put more power in the hands of average workers — ostensibly a good thing, if you believe in the manufacturing mystique. And so labor unions, at once both hopelessly politicized and practically defanged, languish with dwindling membership; only 11.6 percent of private-sector manufacturing workers were part of a union in 2010.

And this is to say nothing of the push to deregulate industries, including workplaces, that Santorum pushed as a key to economic growth — or the call to cut social services that benefit the lower- and middle-classes.

In all fairness to Santorum, he’s one of the few GOP candidates who does not support a federal Right-to-Work law (a ban on union-only shops), although President Santorum would sign one if it was sent to his desk. And he’s not opposed to a minimum wage, or future increases, as long as they seemed economically prudent; he told me Wednesday he’d like to see the minimum wage serve as a “floor,” with only a small percentage of workers making that little.

But given the overall crusade against the average worker, one might suspect that the role of the manufacturing worker in our society is more a spiritual one — they’re more valuable to our sense of identity than our economic interests.

If we really value workers, though, our policies must reflect this. Whether you’re Barack Obama or Rick Santorum, it’s absurd to fantasize about stolid workers making America rich without enshrining them in your politics, too.

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