As a candidate in 2016, Donald Trump made a big deal about bringing back blue-collar jobs, especially in coal and manufacturing. That may have helped him win key states. As part of the plan, he promised to improve America's trade relations with countries that had taken advantage of U.S. workers. That seemed a welcome change. For decades now, every president had been gung ho for international agreements that hurt workers and lacked strong environmental protections.
But President Trump and his people have not had much positive impact in the trade area. Trump may have able negotiators on his staff--Robert Lighthizer is one--but the president is a terrible negotiator and he intervenes without understanding what he is doing. He does not exert himself to acquire much knowledge on any subject and he lives in a parallel universe of lies and accusations. The U.S.-Mexican-Canadian Agreement (USMCA) may be an improvement over NAFTA and wages for Mexican factory workers should rise. But in general, not much has been done to boost American blue-collar job growth. Examples of things that did not happen include a big infrastructure program which could generate a lot of blue-collar jobs, and trade pacts that really make China play fair.
In the trade area the numbers are clear. In July of 2020, the overall trade deficit of goods and services hit $63.6 billion--the worst month in 12 years. The goods deficit with China totaled $31.6 billion and the goods deficit with Mexico was a record. In part these trends may be pandemic-related, but the numbers weren't good before the pandemic. In 2018 and 2019 annual deficits in goods traded between the U.S. and the rest of the world were the highest ever in dollar terms at $880 and $864 billion dollars. On a related topic, federal Buy-American programs, there is little evidence of success for the administration.
Would trade be fairer if Joe Biden were President? Biden has plans to invest in domestic production of personal protective gear and other key items that we now buy from overseas. He promises to invest heavily in a big infrastructure program and he supports Buy-America requirements. He thinks he can expand manufacturing jobs.
But can he re-do major trade treaties in ways that would add jobs at home? Is Biden ready to fight the free-trade lovers? The free-trade lovers include Barack Obama and Biden himself, big political donors, big bankers and investors who sell information and technology to China, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, leading international businesses, including, of course, retailers who rely on products manufactured cheaply overseas, and some U.S.-based manufacturers who require cheap foreign parts. Not to mention free-market ideologues among scholars and politicians. Whether Biden has the desire and the determination to go up against these interests is a real question.
It seems clear that tough talk alone won't bring many new blue-collar jobs. In two areas that Trump has targeted--mining and manufacturing--job growth rates had not accelerated before the pandemic.
The two sectors represent very different problems. Burning coal is a disaster for the environment and needs to stop. And by the way, coal mining is not good for the health of mine workers. Black lung disease never went away and it is on the rise again. Nor is coal good for those who live near coal-fired power plants. And no surprise--they are disproportionately African Americans and Latinos.
On the plus side, there aren't many coal mining jobs left--under 50,000--so there aren't a lot of people who need help when their jobs disappear. And coal mining is not a growth industry. Cheap natural gas and cheap renewables are helping to kill the coal industry. Environmentalists and laborites in states like Colorado are pushing things along by plans for new jobs and income supplements for miners. Similar programs were put in place during Obama's presidency but not enough miners got involved. Trump's promises to bring back coal encouraged miners not to think about alternative careers. But coal mining will continue to decline and it should. There can be alternative job options for ex-miners, and subsidies for mining communities. In fact, these aids can be part of a broader program for the long-term unemployed in left-behind areas of America, rural and urban.
The situation in manufacturing is more complex than in mining. The sector doesn't have to die and there are things that can help it expand. But even if Buy-American programs are successful and if federal investments in infrastructure and American factories increase, rank-and-file factory workers will never carry as much weight in the labor force and in public affairs as they did in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
It is true that since December of 2009--that is, since the Great Recession--the number of rank-and-file manufacturing jobs increased by 12%. But job growth essentially stopped for two longish periods: in 2015-2016 and from June of 2018 through March of 2020. The number of production and non-supervisory workers in manufacturing was still just 8,980,000 in December of 2019. That is below every December from 1940 through 2008. If we could get back to the number of rank-and-file factory workers we had in 1955--13 million--that would be good, especially if workers were unionized and decently paid. But as a fraction of the U.S. labor force, the factory group would be far smaller than it was in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
American leaders need to get serious about creating good jobs in many areas. Reforming trade treaties may create more factory jobs, but the job question today is a much bigger than trade treaties or factory work. And really, factory work is not inherently better, more fulfilling, or more skilled than other kinds of work. Factory jobs became good jobs because unions and high productivity brought higher pay and benefits. Other kinds of jobs can be lifted.
If the U.S. is to create millions of new good jobs, direct government job creation will be key. We need new and improved New Deal job programs. Tax cuts that favor the rich rarely accelerate job creation much. Cutting-edge businesses do not create enough good jobs in the U.S. Apple manufactures most of its stuff overseas. The business model of Uber, Lyft, and Instacart requires crappy, part-time jobs that yield low pay and none of the normal benefits that good jobs bring. There is very little about such jobs that makes them good jobs.
Large-scale government job-creation and training programs will be vital. Here's why.
1. Many of the jobs lost during the pandemic are not coming back. This seems especially true for the restaurant and hospitality sectors.
2. We need an entity that is unambiguously devoted to creating good jobs with good benefits.
3. We ought to be ready to respond to the bump-ups in automation-induced unemployment that experts are always predicting.
4. We need government planning and investments for left-behind communities--for example, mining communities--but also urban neighborhoods that have been crushed by high and persisting poverty and unemployment.
5. Finally, we need large federal job programs in the public and private sectors because there are a thousand things that need doing in our country that are not being done now. To mention just a few general areas: more green jobs to make cities greener, modernizing America's infrastructure, and expanding and lifting child-care and elder-care occupations.
Frank Stricker represents his own views here and not those of organizations he is associated with. Stricker taught history and labor studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills for 38 years. He's a board member of National Jobs for All Network. His new book is American Unemployment: Past, Present, and Future.
 Two articles by Robert Kuttner in The American Prospect were very helpful: "Trump and China: The Art of the Desperate Deal," Spring, 2019, and "Made in America: The Post-Corona Economy We Need," May-June, 2020.
 An excellent guide is Don Lee, " 'Buy American' Promise Has Gone Nowhere," Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2020. "Buy American" has worked in some instances, including The Jobs to Move America program that encouraged transit districts to buy U.S.-made vehicles and got funding from Obama's Department of Transportation to support local rail factories.
 A useful and optimistic analysis is Robert E. Scott, "We Can Reshore Manufacturing Jobs, but Trump Hasn't Done It." EPI Policy Center, August 10, 2020.
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