Steel: Important To Us But Not Important To Us

This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture as part of the Making It In America project. I am a Fellow with CAF.
I had the opportunity to tour a steel plant outside of Pittsburgh yesterday. (I am here for the Netroots Nation convention.)
The word that keeps coming into my mind is “intense.”
I experienced intense heat, intense colors in the molten steel, and intense faces on the workers. We wore protective clothing, boots, earplugs, gloves and protective eyeware. Safety is a prime concern because without careful attention to detail this can be a very dangerous undertaking. The workers in these plants depend on safety procedures and each other to a degree that you do not find in many other occupations.
One of the notable things about this tour was the security. It was intense. I won’t get into some of the details, but plants like these are considered to be very important to the Department of Homeland Security and special precautions are taken. You need special permission to even enter the grounds. ID is carefully checked. We not only couldn’t even take pictures of the facilities but they will confiscate a cell phone if they see it out of your pocket. (You can have it back later.)
Let that sink in: Manufacturing plants like these are considered vitally important to the security of the United States and are assigned special protection.
Unfortunately our own government does not feel the need to protect plants like this beyond the vague post-9/11 threat of “terrorism.” They check your ID at the gate, but they aren’t concerned with making sure plants like this one stay in the United States. The two blast furnaces at this plant are the last two operating in the whole state of Pennsylvania. There used to be a dozen just at this plant. Nationally the decline is similar. We all know this but we do not seem to be capable of doing something about it.
This decline is not the “buggy-whip” phenomenon where an industry is being replaced or is evolving. Quite the opposite. Steel is the core component of the bridges, buildings, appliances, cars, etc. that we build. But now much of that steel comes from other countries. And much of it is inferior quality or produced in ways that harm the planet. This plant produces 1/3 the carbon emissions of similar plants in China. And then there is the carbon-emitting shipment across oceans to consider. But harming the planet is apparently someone else’s long-term problem when money is to be made today.
The problem is not even labor costs. Labor is not a large component of our steel costs. The cost of raw materials is a larger part of the lower cost of imported steel. When you hear about hundreds of people trapped in mines in other countries you are hearing about lower cost of raw materials. Lives can be cheap and it is someone else’s problem when money is to be made.
We have stood by and allowed other countries take over industries like this one by pursuing national strategies to build their economies at the expense of our own, or their own workers and of the environment. When competition is allowed to occur by continually moving the work to cheaper and less protective (of both lives and the environment) regions the result has to be a continued downward spiral of living standards. This is not sustainable and we are all living the results of this constant downward pressure.
Manufacturing is the key to economic power. Yet we worry about some fanatics in a cave somewhere, but we don’t seem to worry about losing the steel plants and other industries and the jobs and the economic benefits to us and the world. This practice of checking ID at the gate but standing back and letting the plant itself close because another country allows worker or environmental exploitation is beyond short-sighted. It is self-destructive.