Thousands of Downriver trade-related jobs lost over recent years, study shows

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Trade-related job losses among Downriver manufacturers — from Big Three automakers to smaller medical suppliers — contributed to Michigan’s unenviable ranking among the hardest-hit states over the past three years, according to a report by a newly formed group of fair-trade advocates.

The impact of imported goods and so-called “offshoring” more than doubled Michigan’s trade-related job losses in 2017-19, compared with the previous three years, according to the Trade Justice Education Fund.

“The impact is real, and things are getting worse,” said Denise Bailey, the lead organizer in Michigan for the Washington, D.C.-based fund that describes itself as a nonprofit founded by representatives from the labor, environmental, faith and consumer movements.

Denise Bailey

The fund based its findings on data drawn from the federal government’s Trade Adjustment (TAA) program, which provides unemployment benefits to workers certified by the Labor Department as having lost jobs due to trade and import activities. 

Among its key findings:

• Michigan experienced a 211% increase in trade-related job losses over the last three years in comparison to the three years before that, with 15,675 job losses certified for TAA under petitions filed between 2017 and 2019 compared to 7,428 between 2014 and 2016. Michigan also suffered a 308% increase in trade-related job losses in 2019 over 2018.

• Despite only being the 10th largest state by population, Michigan experienced the second highest trade-related job loss numbers in the country from 2017–2019. Michigan trailed only California, a state with nearly four times a many people. This ranking is even worse than Michigan’s historically higher-than-average position as the state with the fifth most TAA certifications in the country from 1994–2019.

Workers in the auto, steel and medical supply industries were among Downriver TAA recipients included in the report for 2017-19.

Those include:

• Brownstown Township: General Motors Corp. Battery Assembly, 106 workers idled in 2019

• Flat Rock: Ford Motor Co. Assembly, 1,056 workers, 2019

• Romulus: A123 Systems (battery cells), 216 workers, 2017

• Romulus: A123 Systems, 81 workers, 2019

• Romulus: Kerr Corp. (medical supply), 25 workers, 2018

This year, 1,390 workers idled at the U.S. Steel Corp.’s Zug Island site were certified for TAA benefits.

“Michigan is hemorrhaging jobs … with devastating effects on our working families, our communities and our economy,” Bailey said.

Micheal Davis, organizing director for the Michigan AFL-CIO, said trade-related job losses have a negative ripple effect that cannot be explained by numbers alone.

“Oftentimes, we see these data sets and large numbers and tune out because it is too abstract,” he said. “Those data sets represent families, friends, classmates, co-workers, parishioners.”

Micheal Davis

Davis pointed to the impact on tax revenues, local economies and small businesses — “mom and pop shops.” A typical example, Davis said, was a member of Local No. 1299 of the United Steelworkers Union in River Rouge. The worker, a second-generation steelworker, was hired in 1995 and was among more than 1,000 people idled by U.S. Steel.

“These were good-paying jobs with benefits,” he said.

Bailey said the Trade Justice Education Fund will monitor, analyze and publicize its review of federal policies and corporate actions, including tax policies and international trade deals. Of special interest are examples of offshoring, described as the practice of basing some of a company’s processes or services overseas to take advantage of lower costs.

“We need to get serious about trade deals that actually enforce labor rights, require wage improvements and include strong environmental standards so that corporations are no longer able to ship jobs around the globe to wherever workers are the most exploited and regulations are the weakest,” she said.

Patrick Anderson, former chief of staff for the Michigan Department of State and a deputy budget director for the state of Michigan under Gov. John Engler, credited the trade fund for its work in reviewing TAA data and trade-related job losses. But he cautioned that the relationship between jobs and trade practices is nuanced and affected by many factors, with offshoring among those.

Anderson, who founded the Anderson Economic Group in Lansing in 1996, has been a consultant to states and corporations, including Michigan, Ohio, General Motors, Ford and Honda.

Patrick Anderson

He said economic analysis of trade and job losses is complicated this year by the global coronavirus pandemic and by the still-unfolding impact of recently revised trade agreements, including the U.S.-Canada-Mexico relationship. After much give-and-take, the three nations renegotiated the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) and replaced it with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which took effect July 1.

Anderson credited domestic automakers and union leaders for “the most forward thinking” in the early days of the pandemic crisis by moving swiftly to close plants temporarily and implement health safeguards to fight the fast-spreading virus.

“I give credit to the auto executives and labor unions,” Anderson said. “Both looked at this seriously early and figured out how to shut down and then reopen.”