September 17, 2003    Volume 10, No. 17

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Manufacturing Crisis Exposes Chinks In Republican Armor

The growing agitation felt by U.S. manufacturers getting hammered by cheap imports is beginning to express itself politically in unpredictable ways. The free-trade stance of President Bush and the Republican controlled Senate and House has raised the collective ire of small- and medium-sized manufacturers that claim they are on the verge of extinction. Manufacturing executives and their employees are suddenly flexing their political muscles and are causing some unexpected reactions, particularly in states heavily dependent on manufacturing. These states also happen to be conservative strongholds that form the base of the Republican domination of the legislative and executive branches of government.

At a meeting late last month of the Gaston, N.C., Chamber of Commerce, conservative Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) told those assembled that she would have a hard time endorsing President Bush for president next year if he doesnıt aggressively address the manufacturing issue. "This may step on some toes, but Iıve been thinking about it a long time and I havenıt said anything," Myrick said. "There comes a point if he doesnıt care about us, we wonıt care about him when election time comes."

President Bush and his economic team "are beginning to realize" that they are facing political fallout if he does not adequately pursue the issue, Myrick told Manufacturing & Technology News on September 12. "They need to pay attention to the issue and they need to put the resources they have to bear to help the manufacturing industry in this country. They have to take the initiative."

The two-time governor of Charlotte who came to Washington in the 1994 Republican Revolution says she knows the White House has heard her comments from Gaston, but she has not yet met with administration officials to discuss them. "I use the example that sometimes when you have a disagreement in your own family, you have to use tough love," she says. "Thatıs what I did and it got their attention. Nobody is trying to work against them. Weıre all trying to work together. Thatıs the whole point. We want to do what we can to work together."

Myrickıs comments concerning her wavering support for Bush were received with some trepidation in Gaston. An editorial in the Gaston Gazette on Sept. 11 says Myrick is a hypocrite, favoring free trade bills when it was fashionable to do so but now having second thoughts due to an increasingly implacable manufacturing insurgency. Myrickıs home page on the Internet features a prominent picture of her with President Bush.

"Sheıs getting hit hard," says the chief of staff from one North Carolina congressional office. The recent Pillowtex bankruptcy, which has resulted in the largest single layoff in North Carolina history, is reverberating throughout the heavy textile region of the southeast. "Everybody is up in arms," says the congressional aide. "Weıre getting letters from everywhere. The key thing is manufacturers are doing a good job of getting the attention of the members of Congress. Theyıre writing letters themselves, trying to arrange meetings and activating their employees. These are people you tend to listen to."

Unfortunately for this group of Republican representatives, President Bush has been slow to address the issue. Democratic presidential hopefuls are jumping onto the bash-Bush-on-manufacturing-jobs-loss bandwagon. The Republican controlled Congress has also been slow to react. "It is going through a learning process of how to deal with the situation, but we wonıt have any legislative fixes for months," says one congressional staff aide. Congress is consumed by other issues, particularly funding the war in Iraq and growing budgetary pressures "and wonıt get to [the manufacturing crisis] for months," says the aide.

So how can the Bush administration take the initiative? "Theyıre not real happy to do this but some tariff relief in certain areas would help," says Myrick. When asked if this sounds protectionist, Myrick winces. "Sure it does," she responds. "But weıre not trying to be protectionist. Iıve always been a free trader and I wonıt back away from my trade stance, but itıs not the policy, itıs the enforcement. Youıve got to enforce what you set out to do. You donıt [sign trade agreements] and then ignore following through on them."

Myrick has been impressed with how manufacturers in her state have coalesced into a political movement. "This is the first time in my memory that they really have gotten activated," she says. "If we could have been able to get them to do that 10 years ago, maybe we wouldnıt have all these problems weıve got now. Theyıre totally frustrated because this has been going on for some time. They feel itıs not gotten the attention it deserves and thatıs understandable."

Does Myrick believe there is going to be political repercussions from the uprising? "Sure," she responds. "Unless things change there will be political fallout. I donıt think there is any question about that. I know other [members of the House of Representatives] feel the same way."

Many independent manufacturing executives have told Manufacturing & Technology News that they are ready to abandon the Republican Party. They would rather have to deal with OSHA and environmental regulations and even a new nationalized health care system and at least still be in business, than disappear under the free trade stance of the Republicans in power. As one textile industry executive said: "Until we get some [political] scalps on the wall, nothing is going to change."

In responding to this statement, Myrick said she understands why manufacturing executives feel this way. "But the thing they have to realize is that they shouldnıt, in effect, cut off the hand thatıs helping them because some of us are the only help theyıve got. They need to be cognizant of that, too."

Solutions to the problem are difficult because "itıs so multifaceted," she adds. "There are a lot of things that currently need to be dealt with that take time. It wonıt happen overnight. That is the challenge."

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