We are the Free Market Change We are Waiting For
The April 7, 2008 edition of National Review (dead-tree: subscriber only) contains a piece by Stephen Spruiell, “The Buckeye Stops Here,” that focuses on the Ohio economy. Here’s an illuminating excerpt:
Robert S. “Steve” Miller, the CEO of Delphi when it declared bankruptcy, has some experience managing distressed companies. His previous jobs included CEO of Bethlehem Steel and board member at United Airlines. Addressing reporters in 2005 on the subject of the Delphi bankruptcy, he analyzed the painful transformations occurring within each of the industries he’s worked for (steel, airlines, and autos), and argued that import competition wasn’t the primary force driving any of them to change.
“In the steel industry,” Miller said, “we were being run off the road, not so much by imports, but by domestic competitors such as Nucor and Steel Dynamics.” (These companies operate “mini-mills” that are more flexible and less costly than the large, integrated mills Bethlehem Steel operated.) “They paid equally good wages,” he added, “but needed half the labor hours per ton to do the same job.”
In the airline industry, Miller said, “Delta and Northwest were shot down by JetBlue and Southwest, not Air India or Air China. Worker productivity is a big part of the difference.”
And in the auto industry, Miller pointed out, “Toyota, Nissan, and Honda are competing from assembly plants in our back yard, but without the crippling work rules and social costs embedded in [GM, Ford, and Chrysler’s] labor contracts.” The example of Honda is particularly relevant to any examination of Ohio’s economy. The Japanese automaker opened its first plant in Ohio in 1979, and since then it has opened three more and become one of the state’s top employers. Workers in Honda’s Ohio plants don’t belong to a union, but the company pays competitive wages and benefits and has never laid off any of its Ohio employees.
“In each case,” Miller said, “the old oligopoly has crumbled, not so much from globalization, but from upstart domestic competition.” Standard Textile’s Gary Heiman, the upstart competition in his old-line industry, couldn’t have said it any better himself….
[Heiman] wrote the sentence, “Rather than banking on high-powered lobbyists to stave off the march of globalization, we welcome the end of [import] quotas.”
That sentence can be found in an op-ed Heiman wrote for the Washington Post in 2005 titled “Innovation, Not Quotas,” in which he called on the American textile industry to stop asking the government to protect it from import competition. Compare his attitude to the one expressed by eight out of ten Ohioans who voted in the Democratic primary, and who told exit pollsters that U.S. trade with other countries “loses jobs.”
“That entire notion is nonsense,” Heiman says. Trade takes the blame when people lose their jobs because it’s an “easy target,” he says, absolving shortsighted industry leaders and labor unions when companies run into financial trouble and jobs are eliminated. Rather than take responsibility for failing to adapt, “it’s much easier to say, ‘It’s their fault. It’s China’s fault. The Chinese are taking away our jobs,’ when in fact, that’s just not the case,” he says, citing five years of consistently low U.S. unemployment rates.
While other basic industries “expected the government to protect them from foreign competition,” he says, his company embraced trade, tapped into foreign markets, and doubled the number of workers it employs, both in Ohio and in the U.S., over the past ten years. “We understood the map,” he says, “and we expanded so that today we have about 23 manufacturing facilities in 13 countries, including seven manufacturing facilities in the United States.”
Standard Textile’s U.S. manufacturing centers are not in Ohio — they are located in the southeastern United States, the traditional home of the U.S. textile industry, where Heiman bought defunct mills from bankrupt companies and refurbished them. But as his company grew its manufacturing operations in the U.S. and overseas, it added hundreds of product-development, logistics, customer-service, and finance jobs at its Ohio headquarters.