“Vast numbers of manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania have moved to Mexico and other countries,” President-elect Donald Trump tweeted on August 1, 2016. “That will end when I win!”
Such promises were at the very core of Trump’s campaign to the White House, and it was indeed these promises to “bring back” manufacturing jobs that ultimately led to Trump’s historical upset victory against Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. After Trump assumes the Oval Office tomorrow, on January 20th, America will find out once and for all: Will Trump fulfill his pledge to American manufacturers? And, assuming he can, what are the potential consequences?
Returning to an industrial-centered economy poses various problems. Workers in the manufacturing industry have long experienced tragically high levels of workplace-related injury and death, often due to exposure to toxic materials, such as asbestos, lead, and arsenic, to name a few. If Trump focuses on increasing jobs in the manufacturing sector, his administration may cut safety regulations as a necessary measure. Furthermore, manufacturing jobs are the most vulnerable to becoming obsolete, less because of outsourcing than advances in technology.
Given all of this, a question arises: Is “bringing back” the manufacturing jobs even possible? And if it is, what will the costs be for American workers?
The Untold Story of American Manufacturing
The U.S. Census Bureau defines manufacturing jobs as those that “create new products either directly from raw materials or components. These jobs are usually in a factory, plant, or mill.” In other words, manufacturers are the people who make stuff: Line workers, welders, mechanics, shipyard workers, technicians, pipefitters, electricians, and many other factory or plant-related jobs are what Trump is referring to when he says “manufacturing jobs.”
Today, around 12 million Americans are employed in the manufacturing industry. In 1979, when the manufacturing sector was at its peak, the figure was above 19 million. Manufacturing produced $1.5 Trillion in 2015, comprising 9 percent of the total U.S. GDP.
Though there are fewer jobs nowadays, manufacturers are still relatively well-paid: the average salary, including benefits, is $77,060 (12 percent more than the national average). Within the industry, union jobs are typically higher-paying skilled positions, while unskilled workers are usually not unionized and receive lower wages.
Part of the reason manufacturing jobs pay more is because they are more dangerous. In fact, American factory workers have long been among the nation’s most afflicted in terms of workplace injury and death.
Of the 2.8 million workplace injuries that occurred in 2015, over a quarter took place in manufacturing jobs. Fifty-seven percent of the injuries that resulted in amputation happened in the manufacturing sector, and 353 workers tragically lost their lives in the same industry.
The Silent Killer
However, these grisly statistics only account for workplace accidents such as slips, falls, or being trapped by dropped objects. They do not include the many long-term, long-latency illnesses that debilitate and kill thousands of America’s factory workers, often years — or even decades — after retirement.
Before the 1980s, many industries relied heavily on the use of asbestos. Because of asbestos’s reputation as a “miracle mineral” – one that could resist heat and fire, and proved incredibly durable – it was the material of choice during the 1900s in the steel, auto, paper, pulp, mining, and chemical production industries.
Many machines on the factory line used asbestos to insulate or reinforce certain mechanical components. As the machines wore down over time, workers throughout the factory, especially those handling the machines, were constantly exposed to asbestos.
Exposure to asbestos causes a whole host of serious health problems. At the top of the list is mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare, painful, and fatal form of cancer resulting exclusively from exposure to asbestos. Because there is no cure for mesothelioma, the ultimate outcome is most often death. Another illness linked to asbestos exposure is asbestosis, an excruciating condition where the lungs are scarred by lingering asbestos fibers trapped inside the body.
According to some estimates, upwards to 15,000 Americans die every year from asbestos-related illnesses. Nearly all of these victims – custodians, electricians, firefighters, welders, shipyard workers, and mechanics – were exposed to asbestos while they were working.
Because asbestos was widely used in the manufacturing industry, it is no coincidence that reports of asbestos-related diseases have been much higher in America’s industrial centers. In particular, today’s “Rust Belt” (once the “Manufacturing Belt”) displays frighteningly high mortality rates related to asbestos exposure.
Buffalo, NY, for example, and the surrounding region, suffer an asbestos death rate 3 times that of the national average. Between 1999 and 2013, asbestos-related illnesses ended nearly 2,000 lives in the 3 counties surrounding Buffalo.
Other Rust Belt manufacturing cities – for example, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland – have displayed similar trends.
Give America Mesothelioma Again
The relationship between the manufacturing industry and asbestos-related deaths is again of upmost significance now that president-elect Trump has focused on reviving the manufacturing industry. When Trump promises to “bring back” the manufacturing industry, does that mean that he wants to bring it back as it was before, when companies were exploiting their workers and knowingly exposing them to asbestos and other harmful toxins?
The possibility of a spike in asbestos-related illness is only more frightening when we consider Trump’s track record with asbestos and his promise to cut regulation wherever possible.
In his book The Art of the Deal, Trump argued that the movement to ban asbestos is a conspiracy “led by the mob.” He also claimed that asbestos is “100% safe.” The president-elect once even tweeted that the Twin Towers wouldn’t have fallen if they had been built with asbestos.
Trump made these bold claims after 100 years of scientific and medical evidence has already proven that asbestos is an extremely hazardous material. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists asbestos as a Type I carcinogen (without a doubt carcinogenic), while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) repeatedly states “There is no known safe level of asbestos exposure.” With this knowledge in mind, over 50 nations worldwide have banned asbestos.
If Trump, as president, refuses to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence proving that asbestos kills, what will happen to America’s workers?
Cabinet Picks Support Less Regulation, Too
Trump’s pick for Secretary of Labor, Andrew F. Puzder, likewise does not bode well for American workers. Puzder, a wealthy chief executive, has long been critical of minimum wage increases and voiced his opinion that “workers are overprotected.” Overtime pay and mandatory breaks are also on Puzder’s chopping block.
Puzder and Trump have both said they plan to cut workplace regulations. It’s still unclear if they’ll alter or remove safety regulations or if they will have the political power to do so, but, given their big-business disregard for the average worker, as well as Trump’s documented fondness for asbestos, chances are the workplace will be a more dangerous place under Trump than it was before.
What’s in Store for the Future?
It remains to be seen whether or not it’s even possible to “bring back” America’s “lost” manufacturing jobs. Trump’s initial policy proposals revolve around greatly restricting trade. However, economists agree that American manufacturing jobs have disappeared mostly as a result of increased efficiency and higher rates of production. According to Ann Harrison, professor at the University of Pennsylvania: “80 percent of lost jobs [in the U.S.] were not replaced by workers in China, but by machines and automation.”
The trend of manufacturing jobs becoming obsolete due to automation is only likely to continue. If Trump reversed this pattern, he would need to make American companies significantly less efficient and American products significantly more expensive. Both would be damaging to the economy.
While actually bringing the jobs back is unlikely, Trump is sure to try and achieve this goal by implementing various policies. Cutting regulation, including important laws restricting the use of toxic materials like asbestos, may be a strategy waiting in Trump’s playbook. And the consequences for the American worker could be tragic.
Increasing the number of manufacturing jobs and reducing unemployment is surely a good thing. However, if these goals are achieved at the expense of the health and well-being of the American worker, indeed at the cost of American lives, the cost may be far, far greater than the benefits received. And that? That wouldn’t be “making America great again” at all…. In fact, it’d be the very opposite.