I made a jewelry box in seventh grade. I still have it, taking pride in the first object I built. I remember cutting the wood, nailing the sides, attaching the hinges and staining the finished piece. My skill with tools is not great but I have built a shed, clubhouse for my kids, and over the years I’ve made minor repairs. Like many working class children I became better at books, finding a path beyond the trades through education, earning a living with “my mind rather than my back.” We were proud we could use tools but developed a superior attitude. Today I know better. It takes brains as well as brawn to succeed in a union job.
America also followed this path and we are paying an unfortunate price. My father fixed his own car, repaired our roof after a hurricane, remodeled his house, did his own plumbing and knew how to cook. He did not romanticize self-reliance. There was no other choice for a single dad. He came through the Depression. He was a city worker with six kids and he earned low wages. His generation was proud of what their children accomplished; better salaries, homes, cars, enough money for vacations and the ability to pay for our kid’s education. Still they would be embarrassed that we lost our self-reliance, that we don’t do as much for ourselves.
There is pride as each generation has it better than the one before but there is always a price to pay and America has been given an invoice. It matters little that I have not built much. The problem is that neither has most of my generation and with our attitudes we sacrificed the jobs, the security and upward mobility of those who did and could. We worried less about who built our cars, household goods, consumer products and how we financed our lifestyle. I hope we can reclaim the spirit of self reliance and rebuild our state and our country.
The first step is one of self responsibility; for me and for each of us. We have to stop blaming national and international forces beyond our control, to move beyond theories and focus on what we can do, not what someone else should do. During our parents war citizens were mobilized and engaged; they had victory gardens, recycled metals, bought bonds and shared responsibility for our security. We need to remind ourselves of Jack Kennedy’s challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”
It pains me to drive across New York and see how much is empty: communities who have vibrant housing stock and abandoned downtowns even though they have access to highways, railroads and rivers, valued more for their history than their future. Without the prospect of work children move on and are not replaced. Still I wonder if we might be missing something; going along with consensus opinions that it is hopeless to rebuild upstate New York. Of course there is hope. For years WDI has been funding small projects where unions and companies have not given up; with workers retraining themselves, adapting to new realities, preparing for green jobs, improving their computer skills.
Leveraging public funds, small entrepreneurs seek gold in what most perceive to be the desert. A colleague from Cornell University, Professor Susan Christofferson, speaks of Phoenix Industries, export oriented small to mid-size companies that emerged from the supply chain of old line corporations like Kodak. She offers the example of precision optics and imaging. IBM built their reputation making computers. They are now engaged in the design of circuit boards for robotics. Our challenge is to look beyond the rhetoric of dying manufacturing and discover who is building new industries, where and get them what they need to foster growth. New York needs to develop a strong solar and renewable energy sector and rebuild our electrical grid. WDI recently received a $1.5 million US Department of Energy grant to help IBEW workers improve their skills to build a “smart grid”. New York State has the skilled workforce, manufacturing capacity, roads, rivers and rail to support the development of these products. But the question remains: Do we have the will?
WDI is taking responsibility by addressing these questions. Our experience over the past ten years teaches that there are business leaders, unions, local governments and researchers committed to bypassing “common wisdom” that we are doomed to fail. Smarter entrepreneurs follow an old adage, “The time to buy is when there is blood in the streets”. A down market keeps the cautious competition at bay. Bolder initiators see assets where others see danger. WDI believes more is possible and we work to create that reality. We believe through dialogue we can discover more possibilities.
In January I was part of a small panel of national experts the Surdna Foundation convened to help them decide what they could do to help address America’s manufacturing decline (click here to view their report). In October WDI will convene a similar roundtable discussion focusing on manufacturing in New York. We are inviting those with front line experience and practical knowledge. We are less interested in theory and ready to be surprised by new realities. Our economy is realigning; individuals are taking advantage of new opportunities and union workers are gaining skills to build green. We will listen to their stories, celebrate self reliance and learn how we can help. There is pride in building products that last and systems that serve. We have a history of successful products and innovative systems. Our task is to build from that history, to work together to create a new economy where unions and companies contribute to a thriving, healthy and growing New York State.