Regulatory Rollbacks Are Not What American Manufacturing And Manufacturing Workers Need

Both the administration and some in Congress are arguing for regulatory rollback as a cornerstone of a platform on American manufacturing. There’s only one problem with this plan: cutting regulations doesn’t help American manufacturing, it hurts it—and it hurts American manufacturing workers and communities that depend on them.

This post is by Zoe Lipman, Director, Vehicles and Advanced Transportation, BlueGreen Alliance.

In line with a February order to review regulation across the government for possible, “repeal, replacement, or modification,” the administration began taking comment this week on regulations overseen across EPA. Meanwhile, the Regulatory Accountability Act was introduced yesterday in the Senate, a bill designed to hamstring the regulatory process as a whole. Both the administration and some in Congress are arguing for regulatory rollback as a cornerstone of a platform on American manufacturing. There’s only one problem with this plan: cutting regulations doesn’t help American manufacturing, it hurts it—and it hurts American manufacturing workers and communities that depend on them.

Take the auto industry. The automotive industry is at the heart of American manufacturing, supporting over 200,000 automotive assembly jobs and nearly three quarters of a million more manufacturing jobs building advanced automotive components and technology. And that’s without counting manufacturing jobs in advanced steel, aluminum, glass, chemicals, and plastics designed and built specifically for the industry.

Over the past decade, the American auto industry has staged an impressive comeback from near collapse. Today the industry is profitable, hundreds of thousands of jobs have returned, and cars and trucks are cutting edge, popular, and save consumers money. This comeback has been simultaneous with, and reinforced by, the industry’s highly successful implementation of a new generation of car and truck fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards—which is to say, the automotive recovery has been boosted by sound EPA and DOT regulations, requiring significant ongoing improvements in vehicle efficiency and emissions.

In research and reports BGA recently released, we found hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers nationwide—over 100,000 in Michigan and Ohio alone —who are working today building the technology that increases fuel economy and cuts emissions.

In research and reports BGA recently released, we found hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers nationwide—over 100,000 in Michigan and Ohio alone —who are working today building the technology that increases fuel economy and cuts emissions. Some of these are additional jobs making new, added, and upgraded technology to improve efficiency, while others are existing jobs secured by more robust reinvestment in longstanding engine, transmission, and assembly plants. Meanwhile, innovation has been turbocharged industry-wide. Today in the auto sector, rolling back regulation would not only threaten jobs, it would put domestic manufacturer’s newfound competitiveness at risk relative to nations like China, which take promotion of new technology manufacturing very seriously.

As part of this deregulatory fervor we are also seeing proposals to cut funding, not only for rulemaking and agency staff but for preeminent government technical centers and resources, such as the vehicle testing and certification laboratory at EPA’s Office of Transportation Air Quality. Not surprisingly, even some in industry are sounding concerned. This cavalier attitude and a haphazard process of regulatory “reform” could result in investment-stifling uncertainty, loss of critical technical expertise and oversight, and harm to American consumers and industry.  In short, sound regulation is an integral part of the revival of American manufacturing.

… not all of the jobs building cutting edge technology in America are “good” jobs—too many are poorly paid, dangerous, and lacking in basic workers rights, benefits, or safeguards.

But this is only part of the automotive story. It’s critical that we build the next generation of technology in America, and also that we build good jobs doing so. In April, the president was in Detroit talking about jobs and highlighting automaker investment and job announcements that have been part of this innovative automotive recovery. Only a week or so later, a Bloomberg Business Week cover story told the harrowing stories of low-paid manufacturing workers at several non-union automotive suppliers in the South being impaled by welding robots and falling into vats of acid. As well understood by workers today, not all of the jobs building cutting edge technology in America are “good” jobs—too many are poorly paid, dangerous, and lacking in basic workers rights, benefits, or safeguards.

Any shot these workers’ might have at the kind of good family supporting jobs that manufacturing can support depends on regulation. That shot is being undermined right now because they don’t have basic rights and protections on the job. Our labor, workers’ rights, overtime, and health and safety regulations lag behind other developed nations. In addition, there is scarce enforcement of the rules we do have on the books, particularly since Congress has repeatedly cut the budgets of the agencies that oversee them.

Insufficient regulation isn’t just hurting these workers’ paychecks, it’s putting their lives at risk. Despite this, some manufacturers’ associations, the administration and many in Congress continue to advocate for rollbacks to rules that would have made more workers eligible for overtime pay, to improved labor standards and health and safetyrequirements, to disclosure of violations—even when taxpayers are paying the companies’ bill— and to cut funding to the agencies that enforce these rules. Meanwhile, cutting environmental, water, air and chemical hazard safeguards means increased risk of explosions, leaks and pollution from industry facilities—think refining, chemicals, fertilizer—where accidents can be catastrophic, both to workers in the plant and the communities that surround them.

But, you say, if cutting regulation is so bad for manufacturing, why do the same old forces keep pushing for it? The answer is straightforward: deregulation may well be good for shareholder and Wall Street returns in the short-term—it’s just not good for anyone else. When companies don’t invest as heavily in innovation—upgrades to domestic plants and equipment, overtime pay, toxics abatement, training, or safety—those savings flow to shareholders in higher profits, while costing society and workers in lower wages, less training, more injuries and health problems, and damage to the local community. In addition, this short-term view is likely to harm the competitiveness of domestic manufacturing in the medium- and long-term, leading to a lagging technological edge, encouraging imports of more advanced or efficient technology, and ending with plant closures and layoffs that are devastating to workers and communities.

The nation has tried cutting regulation, curbing workers ability to bargain with their employer, cutting taxes, and then government and public services and oversight since the 80’s, and we have seen prosperity shift away from the middle class ever since.

If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because there is nothing even slightly new about this agenda. The nation has tried cutting regulation, curbing workers ability to bargain with their employer, cutting taxes, and then government and public services and oversight since the 80’s, and we have seen prosperity shift away from the middle class ever since.

Cutting regulation isn’t just harmless ideological grandstanding to curry favor with corporate interests, its actively counter-productive, undermining industry investment and global technological leadership on the one hand, while taking money out of workers pockets and undermining their health and safety on the other.

Rolling back regulations doesn’t create good jobs, it takes us in the opposite direction—harming our economy, our environment and our communities. To fix the problems facing American workers, we need a different agenda.