Roll Up Your Sleeves West Michigan

January 3, 2006
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Tragically, our economy suddenly resembles the social foundation of the welfare system. Our working class — the successful and resilient small manufacturers — are shouldering the brunt of the market challenges.

Most every week, somewhere in the region a manufacturer is pleading to its hometown municipality. “China is killing us. Health care is too expensive. Oh, the SBT!” they wail. “Please, please. We’re doomed without this tax abatement.”

If the violins fail, the threats won’t. “We don’t want to move…”

That might be to Georgia or Mexico, or it could be from Wyoming to Grandville, as Tom Van Ree’s Legacy Precision Molds did late last year.

It seems we are forgetting the roll-up-your-sleeves, get-it-done attitude that has characterized the region since the lumber barons birthed Furniture City. With our consistent and desperate cries for help, we are slowly adopting the welfare mentality that often characterizes Detroit

Except for Detroit and its automotive peers, Michigan’s larger stalwarts have found renewed profitability. From Steelcase and Herman Miller to Alticor and Stryker, the largest manufacturers are standing tall.

While all manufacturers face the same foreign competition, trade policies and raw material costs, the smallest have been squeezed the hardest.

In a recent issue of IndustryWeek, Joel Yudken, economist for the AFL-CIO, used figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to show that of a net loss of 27,000 U.S manufacturers’ establishments from 2001-2004, 90 percent were companies or individual plants employing fewer than 250 employees.

West Michigan’s small manufacturers have every reason to complain. The rift continues to grow between suppliers and OEMs, whether Steelcase or GM. They have every reason to grind their teeth and scream for help. But as we are quickly learning, there is no White Knight, and a Robin Hood just won’t do.

The federal government and manufacturing czar Albert Frink will continue to brand those struggling voices as protectionist, all the while advocating for a larger trade deficit and anti-intuitive legislation like CAFTA. Ditto for the John-Engler-led National Association of Manufacturers.

Expect nothing at the state level, where the coming election year will pit the interests of West Michigan and Detroit against each other in such a manner that both sides will lose.

If the region could make a collective resolution for 2006, let it be to stop making excuses and start making the improvements and innovations necessary to close manufacturing’s prosperity gap.

Had Van Ree stayed in Wyoming, he would have missed out on the state’s questionable tax-free Tool and Die Recovery Zone status, but he still could have participated in the innovative coalition model the zones endorse.

How many others of the 30 West Michigan companies picked by the state only wanted that metaphorical fat-free cookie, but not the health care membership? We’ll know in due time, as they’ll still be struggling for years to come.    

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