MECHANIC FALLS — As Maine’s economy gradually reopens, many of our industries are preparing to serve clients and customers in a post-pandemic world.
But for our manufacturing sector, life never stopped. During the economic shutdown, countless Maine companies performed manufacturing miracles to stem the tide of the coronavirus. After forming a public-private partnership with Idexx Laboratories, the state government was able to ramp up its COVID-19 testing capacity more than threefold – from 300 tests per day to as many as 700. Bath Iron Works, meanwhile, joined forces with Guilford-based Puritan Medical Group to double the production of nasal swabs used for testing – from 20 million per month to 40 million.
Where would we be now if Maine had lost all of its manufacturing capability to countries like China? We would be waiting in a long line for personal protective equipment, jeopardizing the health and safety of front-line Mainers – from medical workers to grocery store employees.
If we’ve learned anything from the COVID-19 experience, it’s that we need to preserve and strengthen the U.S. manufacturing base. For decades now, China’s communist government has been targeting us, driven by a succession of five- and 10-year plans, the latest of which is the “Made in China 2025 Key Technology Roadmap.” The most recent plan lays the groundwork for dozens of rebates and subsidies to Chinese companies that export to the United States. Like its predecessors, this plan relies on unfair trade practices that artificially lower Chinese prices in order to undermine its competitors.
And China has been successful, helped by our own short-term profit motives and a betrayal of corporate responsibilities – not solely to shareholders, but also to workers, clients and customers, and broader communities.
American jobs are being hemorrhaged. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of manufacturing jobs in Maine alone dropped by 35,000 – a 40 percent decrease. Nationally, we have lost more than 5 million jobs to offshoring since 2000.
When manufacturing jobs are offshored, rank-and-file workers suffer in various ways – with those jobs went benefits. We recently learned that 25 percent of America’s current workforce does not even receive paid time off (let alone health insurance or retirement benefits), forcing millions of workers to cobble together independent contract work and part-time gigs just to stay afloat. It’s impossible to separate that financial insecurity from the hollowing-out of manufacturing employment.
Fortunately, Maine’s remaining manufacturers have avoided losing business to the Chinese government’s grand plans. Auburn Manufacturing, based in Auburn and Mechanic Falls, produces advanced textiles that we now know were targeted in the “Made in China 2025” plan. Several years ago, we found that our military-grade, fire-resistant silica fabrics were being displaced by “dumped” Chinese silica fabrics – through American companies with American trade names – at absurdly low prices. Within three years, we had lost 30 percent of our domestic market and 20 percent of our workforce.
We fought back, filing a petition with the U.S. Commerce Department and International Trade Commission and triggering duties of up to 300 percent on Chinese silica fabric imports. Those duties represent what China was offering to its supply chain designed to take our jobs.
Because we fought back, we got our business and our jobs back. But unless we all fight back, China’s unfair trade practices will continue to erode our manufacturing base – at the expense of rank-and-file workers. Maine manufacturers account for 10 percent of the state’s economic output, which translates to more than $6.3 billion per year. And we pay our share in taxes.
If we lose manufacturing to China, we lose our ability to protect our people – both in terms of public health and financial security. However, if we continue to respond properly, we can use the COVID-19 pandemic to restore American manufacturing to its former glory.
Maine’s manufacturing heroes are providing a blueprint for domestic supply chains that are independent of hostile foreign powers like China, which break the rules to crush their competition. Let’s continue building on our progress.