Column: Opportunity for U.S. aerospace in Minnesota

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 30, 2008

By Richard Michalski, Guest Column

Since the advent of free trade agreements like NAFTA, the U.S. has lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs abroad to countries that pay little more than lip service to worker protection and environmental standards. For the most part, corporate America has responded with yawning indifference, arguing that American workers need to &8220;adapt and evolve&8221; to a changing global marketplace and retrain themselves for higher skilled jobs.

The result has been the hollowing out of many communities throughout Minnesota and the country as jobs move offshore and tax bases dissipate.

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These days, there seems to be no winning, for even where American workers are the have honed the most advanced technological skills anywhere in the world, our government still seems poised to kick them in the teeth.

The U.S. commercial aerospace industry, the envy of the world and the last stronghold of American manufacturing, is a prime example.

The Europeans, particularly the French, have been engaged in what is widely regarded in the U.S. as an illegal and systematic effort to steal jobs and market share from American aerospace workers and firms by dumping over $100 billion in subsidies into their own French-based aerospace company, Airbus.

&8220;We&8217;ll win by any means necessary&8221; pronounced the French Prime Minister a few years ago. And they&8217;ve been effective with this gambit, gaining nearly 50 percent of the market while the American based manufacturer Boeing was forced to shed 65,000 American jobs.

For its part, the Bush Administration has rightly responded by filing the largest lawsuit in the history of the World Trade Organization (WTO) against the EU.

But, here the Bush Administration is taking one step forward and two steps backwards.

However, the U.S. Department of Defense is today poised to countermand the Administration&8217;s own trade negotiators by insisting that Airbus be one of the two competitors in the award for the U.S. Air Force&8217;s crown jewel of airframe contracts &8212; a $40 billion tanker aerial refueling contract.

An award to the American manufacturer could support some 44,000 jobs and hundreds of communities here at home.

In this state alone this contract would mean union jobs for Minnesotans and nearly $20 million in annual revenue for the state.

But, if Airbus wins the contract, the DOD will create tens of thousands of jobs in France and reward the very company that our trade representatives have sued as rogue violators of trade laws.

Without a doubt, DOD needs to replace its refueling aircraft &045; a point on which there is broad agreement.

But, after understandable outrage on Capitol Hill over Boeing&8217;s no-bid contract for the tanker replacement aircraft in 2003, a once-criticized DOD has this time, perhaps over-reacted and gone to the other extreme, insisting that the award must be done on a competitive basis. The result is that a heavily subsidized European manufacturer will be able to compete with the benefit of billions in government subsidies against a U.S. manufacturer which received no subsidies.

To a divided Washington bureaucracy, it seems impossible to reconcile free trade with competitive contracting.

However, just as American workers have retrained themselves for higher skilled jobs, bureaucrats must retrain themselves as well. Competition may be the fuel of excellence, but if one team is on steroids, then the cause of competition is hopelessly distorted.

This aerial refueling tanker decision is about jobs, jobs for machinists, engineers, programmers and thousands of others in a critical economic supply chain. That supply chain can support the U.S. military and industrial bases in communities all across the country &8212; from Minnesota, Illinois, Washington, California, Ohio, Florida and Alabama &8212; or it can support jobs and communities in France. The choice is ours.

Rich Michalski is the general vice president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.