WASHINGTON (Sept. 15, 9:30 a.m. EDT) — Manufacturers, including plastics companies, have been mounting a campaign to get the message to Washington that they're hurting. Whether they've succeeded depends on how you define success.
If success means acknowledging the problem, mission accomplished. If you're waiting for something more concrete, some industry officials suggest that the jury's still out.
The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. unveiled the latest part of its effort Sept. 11, announcing in a symbolic ceremony on the steps of the Capitol in Washington that it had collected 11,000 signatures with its “Plastics Manufacturing Matters” petition.
The group pressed its case in meetings with members of Congress, and argued that the changing economic climate and international pressures have pushed the processing industry's trade picture from a $900 million surplus in 2000 to a $1.4 billion deficit in 2002.
Washington-based SPI said a new analysis it conducted showed that if you measure plastic products contained in other goods, like automobiles and televisions, the industry had a $14 billion trade deficit in 2002, which translates into lost jobs. About half of that deficit is attributable to China, SPI said.
SPI President Don Duncan said the group wants the U.S. government to press China to readjust its “undervalued” currency, the yuan, and let it float freely on foreign exchange markets.
And SPI wants an energy policy that boosts natural gas production or makes more use of other energy sources to take the strain off natural gas supplies, which would help keep resin prices down, he said.
Duncan thinks Washington is starting to listen. That's a switch from a year ago, when he said a delegation of plastic executives were “really irritated” when President Bush's then-senior economic adviser, Larry Lindsey, told them in a private meeting that the economy was in “great shape.”
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, told the group Sept. 11 that Congress has heard the complaints from manufacturers in the past several months, and is listening.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., told SPI that Washington is looking more closely at trade deals because of the loss of manufacturing jobs, and she said businesses need to push Democrats to support more natural gas production in the energy bill.
But Boehner also told the group that the Chinese situation is very delicate and said that there are geopolitical considerations overlaying policy, such as the need to build cooperative trade relations with China because it will be the world's next superpower. Other analysts have pointed out that Washington wants China's help in dealing with North Korea.
Several members of Congress have introduced bills recently calling for steep tariffs on China if it violates World Trade Organization rules on currency valuation, but SPI officials said it's not clear if those bills stand any chance of passing.
Some industry officials don't seem convinced that Washington policy has changed much.
“I think the administration so far has not done very much, but at least now they talk about manufacturing,” said Matt Coffey, president of the National Tooling and Machining Association in Fort Washington, Md. “We don't have any solid actions taken by either Congress or the administration.”
President Bush said earlier in September that he would appoint an assistant secretary of commerce for manufacturing, a position some business lobbyists have pushed.
Coffey said the move does not address what he sees as the fundamental problem, that the Commerce Department “is an agency designed to help major corporations establish themselves offshore. They haven't gotten the point that this is a small and medium-sized manufacturers' problem and that's where the job losses are.”
Plastic executives who attended the SPI event, held in conjunction with the group's board meeting, expressed some uncertainty about what would be the best government action. But they said they wanted help on a range of issues, including trade and health-care costs.
“Health care is killing us,” said Jeffrey Gage, chief executive officer of thermoformer and sheet extruder Gage Industries Inc. in Lake Oswego, Ore. He said he thinks legislation allowing trade associations to purchase group health-care plans for members would help.
He said the company has gone from 400 employees more than three years ago to 260 now, but he projects a 5 percent increase in sales this year.