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The return of manufacturing?

President Barack Obama speaks with an employee as he tours the manufacturing facility at Master Lock, maker of security locks, prior to speaking on the economy in Milwaukee, Wis. Obama and the GOP candidates all have plans to boost manufacturing, but commentator Robert Reich says they're mostly wishful thinking.

Kai Ryssdal: Explicit in the tax plan that the White House rolled out today is the hope that changing things around is going to help the American manufacturing sector come back. Taxing this, not taxing that. Factories -- and their present condition -- have been much discussed on the primary campaign trail this year.

Commentator Robert Reich says the discussion has been more fantasy than reality.


Robert Reich: With upcoming Republican primaries in Michigan and Ohio, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have plans to bring manufacturing back. Last month President Obama announced a six-point agenda to do the same.

But despite all the campaign rhetoric, manufacturing will not be coming back. Pent-up demand for cars, appliances and machinery has stoked a small resurgence, but the long-term trend in this country is fewer factory jobs. After World War II, one in three Americans was employed in manufacturing; today it's one in eight.

Even if we didn't have to compete with lower-wage workers overseas, we'd still have fewer factory jobs. That's because the old assembly line has been replaced by computer-controlled machines and robotics.

Bringing back American manufacturing isn't the real challenge, anyway. It's creating good jobs for the majority of Americans who lack four-year college degrees. Manufacturing used to supply lots of these kinds of jobs because factory workers were represented by strong unions powerful enough to get high wages.

Not any more. Even the once-mighty United Auto Workers has been forced to accept pay packages for new hires at only $14 an hour. That's half what new hires got a decade ago, and about the same as most service-sector workers now get.

If there's a single reason for the decline of hourly wages over the last three decades, it's the weakening of unions. Membership has sunk from a third of private-sector workers to fewer than 7 percent.

But the presidential candidates aren't calling for stronger unions. Romney uses every opportunity to bash them, and Santorum is hardly enthusiastic. Even the president, though pro-union, has been noticeably silent on the labor struggles roiling the Midwest -- including Indiana's so-called "right to work law" intended to weaken unions. It's the first such law in the Midwest.

American corporations are doing well again, but hourly wages continue to drop. The ratio of profits to wages is now higher than it's been since the government began keeping track.

The fundamental problem isn't the decline of American manufacturing. It's the declining power of American workers to share in the productivity gains of the American economy.


Ryssdal: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is called "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." Let us know what you think -- write to us.

About the author

Robert Reich is chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.
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This piece was an insult to common sense. I have worked in American manufacturing for 20+ years, both union and non-union. Unions are not the path to economic prosperity. I cringe when I hear people call Obama a socialist, but y0u statements made even less sense. Please keep it real.

Easily one of the top five worst things I have ever heard on NPR in a decade of listening. I'd rather listen to 48 hours of Click and Clack laughing non-stop than another editorial on business by a guy that doesn't run one. Who lets these folks on the air?

I thought I was the only person who thought Mr. Reich wasa has been. I feel sorry for the person from California. The Democrats have half the state on the dole. The hard working people there have to pay for the useless union people. The unions are in their last days.In November if they don't, buy the election, stuff ballot boxes or other election fraud they will be in big trouble. Americans have had enough of them fro the last 4 years.

Although, it is an unfortunate reality that a good portion of your message is true. Yet, the solution you inexplicitly allude to...stronger unions are needed to restore balance in the American economy; is NOT the cureall. The real problem is too many Americans are not aware of the long term job trends, or they to choose to live in denial of the present marketplace, and are vastly unprepared for the current and emerging environment. High quality affordable education and skills trainings that is aligned with the 21st century and beyond economies, is the biggest missing piece of the American worker's economic puzzle. If we start to advertise and accept the inevitable, and then incentivize and prepare ourselves accordingly, more americans will have good jobs. This means that GREAT Post-secondary education/training is a MUST for the masses, and our preK-12 education only ensures a strong but BASIC BEGINNING. Better business management, governmental regulations, and unions, have their place in varying degrees, after workforce development.

"If there's a single reason for the decline of hourly wages over the last three decades, it's the weakening of unions."

That must explain why a new UAW hire earns $14/hr while a nonunion worker at VW in TN or Hyundai in AL earn well over $20/hr. It is this mindless drivel that will sink our county's industrial strength. It was the "jobs bank" that paid people to not be productive and restrictive work rules that almost anihilated the US auto industry.

Mr. Reich's comments are always one sided, I have come to expect that. But from the front lines of American business Mr. Reich may be surprised to find out that the unions have done themselves no favors. Union membership is in decline because unions themselves have failed as a business. They offer the same old advesarial, stoddgy product that they have been offering for decades with the same results; closed factories. Union membership is declining because of unions. It's easy to blame the management of American business but it is of little solice when you are standing in the unemployment line telling the guy in front of you; "hey, our company closed down but you know what, we had a strong union, top wages and the best benefits around". There are an awful lot of American cars made in this country by the transplant automakers. These jobs support millions of Americans and they are making some of the best products on the planet. But you never hear about that because they aren't unionized. But don't fear. They are trying. Mr. Reich, the UAW has vowed to bring Toyota to it's knees with it's organizing. Do we really need to bring MORE Americans to their knees?

Mr. Reich stated today that declining unionization is the cause of declining employment/compensation for those without college degrees, and that the solution to this decline is to increase unionization. I believe he has the causation wrong. Unionization has decreased because the labor market has become more competitive. In labor markets where there is little or no competition, unions are strong and have a place, such as professional sports leagues, SAG/AFTRA, etc. If Mr. Reich would like to see higher incomes for those without degrees, then the solution is not more unionization but the imparting of more and more valuable skills in our pre-K through 12 education.

I think it would benifit you and your listeners if you would ban Robert Reich from your program. He obviously doesn't have a clue about the first steps of mathmatical equations. It seems to me that someone doesn't have to be very far up the ladder of common sence to realize that by raising the price of our hourly wage so far above our neighbor's, our products are going to cost more then theirs.
The big labor unions that he is saying would help the situation, are the very ones that have driven most of our manufacturing jobs out of this country. What a looser! Eli form the Ozarks

Thank you for airing Robert Reich's comments. Why do we allow higher profits for corporations, higher salaries for executives and lower salaries for the workers who produce the products? This is not the road to a stable, vibrant economy or society. I was surprised to hear that the percent of workers represented by unions has declined from 33% to 7%. Why isn't this more in the news? Why do the moment to moment changes in the Dow Industrial Average get more coverage than information about working conditions in America?

Why do you continue to have this worn-out Bolshevik on, repeating his silly socialist message? So the reason for our economic malaise is that unions aren't stong enough? No, it's because the products unionized labor produces are uncompetitive in the global economy, so the owner can't make a profit so they are not made! If an owner could make a profit selling union-made products then it would - and if it didn't, the biz next door would. Common sense and the capitalist market model doesn't fit into Reich's paradigms. He should have been banished to the Soviet Union in the 60's where he would now be homeless or have starved to death. Unions AND poor management killed U.S. autos, steel, etc. I don't know what the answer is, but i sure know he doesn't know either.

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