In this post, Steven Hoffman describes what local and national policies would help bring a thriving, 21st century manufacturing sector to the United States. Steven and his brother Dennis own Buttonwood, a small urban manufacturer.
The Obama administration crows about the wisdom of bailing out now recovered car giants GM & Chrysler, but where does that leave the little guy factories? For every auto manufacturer we’ve saved, we’ve lost thousands of tiny American manufacturing firms unable to compete with cheap foreign labor that punches in at 1/20th of what we consider a decent wage in this country, and ignores 100 years of hard won labor and safety rules here. Collectively, these small manufacturers provided scads of jobs.
How can public policy (meaning city, state, and national government) begin to tip the scales in favor of little factories that were once the backbone of an exploding middle class in the USA? Is it too late to redress the denuding of production capacity in, say, the apparel industry in NYC’s fabled garment center, once home to the great “schmata” factories?
If the city, state and federal government got together in a single (think Robert Moses in the 30’s) initiative to:
1. Set aside still unused city land in the Bronx and “gift” the land to selected certified producers (not warehouses) of apparel for new factories.
2. Get ConEd to offer 50% off on energy costs to these factories on a sliding 10-year scale.
3. Enforce the 1985 garment center real estate set-asides for manufacturers. (The provision obligated building owners to rent 30% of their buildings to apparel producers, but the law had no teeth with succeeding city administrations beholden to vast real estate interests.)
4. Federal tax exemptions and low cost-loan guarantees for apparel factories.
5. Union forbearance.
This above laundry list simply boils down to financial incentives that add hidden value to domestic clothing that helps offset the sometimes inhuman foreign wage advantage that would never be tolerated in this country.
Before the garment center goes belly up, our politicians must pony up.
See buttonwood in action in this short video: