At the Building the New Economy conference, Leo Gerard, the head of the United Steelworker’s, made a very powerful argument about the closure of the San Francisco Bay Bridge after a steel beam and two rods collapsed from high winds.
“They segmented out the work to retrofit the bridge, to avoid the Buy American provisions. The Chinese won every segment, they put cheap steel into the bridge, and now a rod collapses,” said Gerard. “I ain’t driving my car over that damn bridge ever!”
This has been a problem that advocates of a stronger US manufacturing industry has harped on for some time. The director of the AAM (Alliance for American Manufacturing), Scott Paul, called Chinese steel used on the Bay Bridge retrofit “unsafe”, as faulty welding delayed shipments of the steel to begin the repairs in the first place. “Subsidized Chinese products may be cheaper at the time of bid, but we have seen what happens when faulty engineering and manufacturing both threatens the safety of Americans and drives up the final cost to the taxpayer,” said Paul.
A report in the San Francisco Chronicle asserted that CalTrans inspectors found cracks in the welding of the Chinese steel last year, but CalTrans rejected their findings, calling the interpretation of the welding standards by the inspection process “too rigid” and eventually firing the inspectors.
This points to a real problem with outsourcing manufacturing. As Gerard said today, the steel imported from abroad is frequently as faulty as the dog food from China that killed pets recently. And yet it’s cheaper in the initial budget projections, so states and the federal government see it as an attractive option. In the long run, however, the cost overruns and eventual replacements outstrip the savings. And, as we’ve seen in the case of the Bay Bridge, the toll in productivity costs, as well as the potential for real danger to our citizens, makes it almost impossible to defend. Not to mention the real risks to not having a domestic manufacturing industry if the supply chain is broken.