In The News
Obama puts Master Lock jobs first as political storm evaporates
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted February 16, 2012
President Obama, who had praised Master Lock for bringing 100 manufacturing jobs home from China and putting its Milwaukee plant at capacity and on a path to expanding, emphasized Feb. 15 that this was not just a passing comment in his state of the Union address.
He flew into Milwaukee accompanied by popular Milwaukee Rep. Gwen Moore as the first leg of a ferocious national policy push for more American manufacturing jobs, tax code changes, local initiatives, tax breaks for manufacturers that create American jobs, the end of tax breaks for companies that outsource such work and massive skills training for available jobs for two million Americans through expanded funding for community colleges.
He also revealed programs he can do without Congress’ action, including summits among global companies to pursue American jobs and open up foreign markets to a level playing field plus creating a legal Trade Enforcement Unit whose only job will be investigating unfair trade practices from countries like China.
Obama was making it rousing clear to Milwaukee and a television audience in his 20 minute speech: If Congress out of ideological implacability continued to oppose anything he tries to do to get America moving, he will force them to listen by moving ahead – and has American companies joining him. He doesn’t have to play politics to push policy. This is an election year when voters respond to common sense and good ideas -- and despise meaningless intransigence.
So the day after Valentine allowed him to deliver a detailed Valentine not just to America but to US manufacturing. The key element was “insourcing” – his term for companies that choose home field over outsourcing, because realities are changing. The siren call of cheap foreign labor has been confronted by the proven productivity and ability of American workers along with changing cost factors that make it not only patriotic but ever more long-term profitable to come home.
The country and some business leaders have still to grasp the complexities of this argument, but Obama had no problem in front of this boisterous crowd of about 800 stacked with elected officials, residents of one of American’s hardest hit communities and the hundreds of cheering workers from UAW Local 469, the core of Master Lock. They have lived the hardships and proven his case.
The new cooperation was emphasized by the speakers preceding Obama -- UAW leader John Drew who outlined the past and the committed aura of trust, and an obviously elated CEO John Hepner, who described the teamwork with the union. Hepner also drew a big laugh as Obama was touring the plant with union leaders and the company’s own much teased conservative manager. “I hope the president doesn’t come back a Republican,” Hepner joshed, but the joke emphasized how good nature overcomes partisan divides and underlies the company’s success.
Obama was introduced by “home-grown” lineworker Andre Johnson, who calmed “the knocking of my heart,” he said later, to introduce the president with great naturalness.
Obama not only gave a pep talk to American job growth but put together speedily a range of previously announced and just announced initiatives. He continued to frustrate those who want him to get into a street fight in a state particularly devastated by right wing extremism. Circumstances (which we will discuss) kept the tone high, but it was also Obama’s patented style, his refusal to be drawn into finger-pointing battles and focus instead on pragmatic steady solutions. This may frustrate progressives but it clearly speaks to a public sick of the extremism that has paralyzed the nation.
Again and again, Obama stuck to his principles while emphasizing cooperation to grow America. “These are not Democratic values or Republican values,” he told the crowd to frequent applause. “These are American values. They have seen us through war and depressions and civil strife. . . . We don't give up. We don't leave people behind.”
As is his wont, he smoothly incorporated family quips after touring Master Lock’s industrial-strength new products. He joked out how handy those “super locks” could be for the father of two teenage girls but “for now, I'm just counting on the fact that when they go to school there are men with guns with them.”
But the thrust of the speech was serious, returning to the Master Lock lesson – a revived union workforce working hand in hand with management to lead in innovation and turn old buildings into humming modernized technology shops. That was just the model of what Obama predicted could be American’s new reality. He named several companies doing the same while the White House provided a fact sheet listing firms from Honda in Ohio to Caterpillar in Illinois to Wisconsin’s Diamond Precision and Collaborative Consulting -- all refusing to outsource and adding jobs to our shores.
“It's good up and down the supply chain,” said Obama during his litany, “because if you're making this stuff here, that means that there are producers and suppliers in and around the area who have a better chance of selling stuff here. It means the restaurant close by suddenly has more customers. Everybody benefits when manufacturing is going strong.”
He urged Congress to pass his tax changes to double rewards to companies that add manufacturing in the US and to demand minimal tax payments from all companies, American or multinational, that outsource US jobs. “Companies that are doing the right thing and choosing to stay here, they get hit with one of the highest tax rates in the world,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense. Everybody knows it doesn’t make sense. So my message to Congress is: Don't wait. Get it done. Do it now.
“If you’re a business that wants to outsource jobs, you have that right, but you shouldn’t get a tax deduction for doing it. That money should be used to cover moving expenses for companies like Master Lock that decide to bring jobs home. Give them the tax break. No American company should be able to avoid paying its fair share of taxes by moving jobs and profits overseas.”
He will need Congress to change the tax code and fund a central idea – skilled job training for two million through community colleges “so that more companies can do what Master Lock does, sell locks in China stamped Made in the U.S.A.”
Attacked in the past for “pie in the sky” optimism, Obama humanized his call by including the human condition, speaking at the lone thriving plant in a sea of abandoned factories and struggling neighborhoods between North and Center and 27th to 35th Streets, among Milwaukee’s most devastated communities. (Outside his early afternoon talk Occupy protesters by the hundreds had lined up to see the president and hold banners urging constitutional action to make banks pay up for illegal foreclosures and similar credit crunches.)
It’s been a “pretty painful process for a lot of families and for a lot of communities, especially here in the Midwest,” he noted to a suddenly somber crowd. “Too many factories where people thought they’d retire suddenly left town. Too many jobs that provided a decent living got shipped overseas. And now the hard truth is, a lot of those jobs are not going to come back. In a global economy, some companies are always going to find it more profitable to pick up and do business in some other part of the world.
“But that doesn’t mean we have to just sit by. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to create new jobs and restore middle-class security here in America. There is always something we can do.
“When you're out of work, that wears on you. It's not just the income. It has to do with your sense of place and your sense of dignity, and your ability to support your family. That's part of what America has always been about. We don't just do it for a paycheck. So this has been hard on folks. And it's going to take some time before middle-class Americans regain the sense of security that’s been slipping away -- way before this recession hit.
“But here's what I want everybody to remember. Over the last 23 months, businesses have added nearly 3.7 million new jobs. Manufacturing is coming back. Companies are starting to bring jobs back. The economy is getting stronger. The recovery is speeding up. We're moving in the right direction. And now we have to do everything in our power to keep our foot on the gas.”
His visit to Milwaukee had been surrounded by expectations of a political confrontation that did not materialize. Observers doubted that Obama would ever let it, but interest ran high when on Feb. 12, two days before the talk, Republican Gov. Scott Walker invited himself to join the Master Lock tour.
Walker’s policies have created an unprecedented one million recall signatures against him that will force a new election. He has been ordered by the Milwaukee District Attorney to answer questions in a John Doe probe that has already charged several of his key aides and exposed a secret email network near his office, with still unfolding illegal intermingling of campaign and government business.
Right before he became governor he turned down $80 million in US funding to include Wisconsin in a national high-speed rail network while raising money from road builders around the state. (Ironically, the rail network jobs, hundreds permanent and thousands in construction, would have been located blocks away from Master Lock in that devastated unemployment wasteland)
As governor Walker with a GOP legislative majority emasculated bargaining rights for public workers, savaged public education by some $1.6 billion in the name of balancing a routine budget deficit, rewarded big business with tax breaks and backed legislation that limits voter freedom and environmental standards.
Just before Obama’s arrival he raided the national mortgage foreclosure deal to use $26 million earmarked for home owners to pay down the state deficit he had a few weeks ago pretended was gone.
Walker had also spent the week before Obama’s visit mocking the president in money raising speeches before out of state conservatives. He also encouraged the Republican Party to demean Obama’s visit as mere campaigning. Yet he then sought to get on camera with the president, though he is probably too cautious to get into a finger-pointing Jan Brewer moment like the Arizona governor did.
It was not just this background that led to high anticipation. This was also the first anniversary of the “Uprising,” the landmark Madison confrontation by 100,000 citizens opposing Walker’s policies.
This UAW workforce may have Republican members but it was eager to confront him because his attack on unions is universally despised. Many in the audience had unpacked their blue fist “Stand With Wisconsin” T-shirts, a popular symbol of the recall uprising.
Attending were many members of the Fab 14 Democratic state senators who had stalled Walker’s attack on union rights. So were several names mentioned in the inevitable recall election. So was his previous opponent for governor, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, signaled out for a salute by Obama. So was the former governor Walker had taken to savaging in political speeches, Jim Doyle.
By Tuesday, Walker announced he had a stomach flu, canceling a Milwaukee Rotary Club appearance long planned for Valentine’s Day. (He had just discovered the press would be there asking John Doe questions.) By the Wednesday morning of Obama’s arrival he canceled the Master Lock tour. Walker limited his involvement to a cordial airport tarmac moment presenting Obama with a Brewers jersey labeled “Obama 1” -- leading Barrett to mockingly congratulate the governor for conceding the presidential race to the Democratic incumbent.
To be clear, even in this environment Obama would not have been deflected into crass politics, but he wouldn’t have had to be. Imagine how Walker’s mere presence would have motivated this crowd -- not to mention the pointed cheers and gestures at Walker had he been in the room – when the listeners heard such prepared Obama remarks as:
“The last thing we can afford to do is go back to the same policies that got us into this mess."
“Milwaukee, we are not going back to an economy that's weakened by outsourcing and bad debt and phony financial profits."
“We need an economy that is built to last, that is built on American manufacturing, and American know-how, and American-made energy, and skills for American workers, and the renewal of American values of hard work and fair play and shared responsibility.”
Real or not, the stomach flu now looks like the smartest weapons in Walker’s political arsenal.