Why It’s Essential for Congress to Reauthorize Trade Adjustment Assistance

Yves here. Democrats tend to fall back on “let them eat training” as a way to deal with blue collar job loss and the hollowing out of manufacturing cities and towns. Having said that, some of these scheme may be effective and help displaced workers move into new careers. I welcome reader input on this Trade Adjustment Assistance program.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

The Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama, was always a part of Cindy Beshears’ life.

She attended her grandfather’s retirement party there as a child, worked two summers at the plant as a college student in the 1980s and accepted a full-time job on the production floor in 2004 after leaving a career in retail.

Goodyear devastated the community when it closed the plant two years ago after shifting hundreds of jobs to Mexico, but fortunately, the federal government’s Trade Adjustment Assistance program provided Beshears and her coworkers with training and other support that helped them through some of the darkest days they’ll ever know.

While thousands of other American workers continue to be harmed by unfair trade, they’ll be denied the same lifeline unless Congress moves quickly to reestablish Trade Adjustment Assistance.

The program expired on June 30 because Republicans refused to join Democrats in extending it. Until Congress reinstates the program, the Labor Department cannot consider any additional petitions for Trade Adjustment Assistance assistance. The United Steelworkers (USW), other unions and Democratic lawmakers such as Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are working to salvage the program, workers’ only real bulwark against the damage inflicted by globalization.

“It’s definitely worth fighting to save,” Beshears said of Trade Adjustment Assistance, created in the 1970s to provide skills-building, employment services and other assistance to workers who lose jobs or wages because of bad trade.

In the 2021 fiscal year alone, the program enrolled more than 107,000 workers in various industries.

“It covers tuition and books. It covers school supplies. It provided a laptop for me. If you have to travel for your classes, it will pay a mileage stipend,” explained Beshears, a former member of USW Local 12L who enrolled in Trade Adjustment Assistance to obtain an associate degree in paralegal studies from Gadsden State Community College.

“It even paid for caps and gowns if we wanted to walk for graduation,” added Beshears, who completed her schooling in May, recalling the pride she felt as her former coworkers also set out on new careers in nursing, child care, welding, transportation and other fields.

“I was very concerned that these people were going to lose hope and that we were going to see a lot of bad things. I would have been one who sat there and wallowed in self-pity, thinking, ‘Oh, I put all that time in, and now I have nothing,’” Beshears said, calling TAA “as valuable mentally and emotionally” as it is educationally.

USW Local 1899 President Dan Simmons would like to see the same opportunities afforded to his members at U.S. Steel’s Granite City, Illinois, facility.

The company recently announced plans to cut 900 jobs there, another betrayal of unionized workers by a steelmaker that’s made a habit of shifting work to nonunion plants.

Workers at Granite City have already seen more than their fair share of tough times over the years, including job losses resulting from unfair trade. Those displaced workers qualified for Trade Adjustment Assistance, with many staying in their new jobs even when the company offered to return them to the mill when market conditions stabilized.

Workers affected by the new round of cuts also would be eligible for TAA if the program still existed, said Simmons, noting he’s especially worried about helping longtime members find new careers.

“There’s no other means to do it except Trade Adjustment Assistance,” Simmons said.

When Republicans torpedoed efforts to extend Trade Adjustment Assistance, they not only turned their backs on workers who will need help in the future but also slammed the door on those already in the middle of the application process.

Jeff Ogg, president of USW Local 1017, worked with GE Lighting in Logan, Ohio, to file a TAA petition for about 50 workers after the company announced plans to shut down the decades-old facility that makes lighting components.

The Logan plant supplied just one facility, a sister plant in Bucyrus, Ohio, that the company also decided to close because of foreign competition. The Labor Department denied the USW members’ petition for TAA, even though their impending job losses directly relate to globalization, and the workers filed an appeal.

Because TAA expired, however, federal officials refuse even to consider it, leaving workers at the Logan plant wondering how and where they’ll get the training they need to move forward.

“I’ve been there pretty much all of my working life,” said Ogg, a mechanic who’s helped to keep the plant running for decades.

“That doesn’t mean I know how to work on anything other than our own machines,” noting he’ll face a learning curve at more modern facilities with computerized equipment. “That’s where the training comes in. I’m going to need a little help.”

Trade Adjustment Assistance’s expiration is doubly tragic because advocates wanted Congress not just to continue the program but also to expand and strengthen it.

Proposed enhancements included streamlining the petition process, providing a tax credit for child care and covering workers who lose their jobs when foreign countries restrict imports of U.S.-made goods.

Unions also called for extending Trade Adjustment Assistance to public service workers. For example, such a provision would cover municipal road workers, firefighters and others who lose their jobs when illegal dumping of foreign goods forces a local manufacturing plant to close, decimating the community’s tax base.

In August, as Beshears starts her job as a paralegal with a municipal government near her home, she’ll leverage one more benefit available at the time she enrolled in Trade Adjustment Assistance. She’ll receive $10,000 in income support to help bridge the gap between her new starting salary and the wages she made at Goodyear.

“I’m just so thankful,” she said of Trade Adjustment Assistance. “That’s what I tell everybody I talk to about it.”

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10 comments

  1. Altandmain

    Having worked at a plant where 800 people lost their jobs and having just been laid off yet again last week from another manufacturing company, I can safely say that most of the training is not going to be effective. Most people end up taking a substantial pay cut. Others are unemployable for life.

    Why should manufacturing workers even support a party committed to free trade? There’s a reason why the 2016 elections ended the way they did. Trump may never have delivered and ultimately betrayed his working class base, but the anger is still there, as is the desire for change.

    Thomas Frank once noted that trade was a class issue. The upper middle class gets the cost savings. The working class loses their jobs.

    It’s also hard for people to relocate in their 50s. Many have roots in the communities they inhabit, kids that would have to be relocated, and there’s no assurance that they would be better off in the high cost of living areas, where all the best paying jobs require degrees, professional certifications, and other very specific to the field training.

    The end result is that crises such as opoid usage are tied to manufacturing plant closures.

    https://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-releases/2019/december/when-automotive-assembly-plants-close-deaths-from-opioid-overdoses-rise

    I’ll be blunt, there is no substitute for a serious industrial policy, likely backed by tariffs, non tariff barriers, and hyper strict capital controls. Its what the rich don’t want. They want labor arbitrage and they aren’t going to let anything get in the way.

    The unions should be willing to withhold their support from pro free trade politicians. Even supporting the opposition. This should be a big single issue vote for these organizations. Other things that should be done are a call for the defunding of economists who support free trade and the universities that employ them. Otherwise, there isn’t much point in the workers paying for the union dues, which is why so many workers today are skeptical.

    I’ll be blunt. I may be a white collar manufacturing employee (or was, as I just got laid off), but I would not be happy if Tom Conway or someone like him was my union leader. He seems too co-opted and bought by the Democratic Establishment. The Republicans are awful, but the passing of NAFTA occurred until Bill Clinton and Hillary was clearly aiming for massive free trade agreements had she won. I’ve been represented by collective agreements before and unless the union is willing to stand up for the workers, people are quickly going to get cynical.

    Unless workers are willing to play hardball, nothing is going change. Another may simply be the ruling class never had to deal with the consequences of their greed. That’s why the sense of noblesse oblige is weaker in North America. I have noticed that many wealthy people are disparaging of the French and Russian revolutions, but underneath it is something that they wish to conceal – fear. Well, American and Canadian rich people are not as worried about the working class right now.

    Reply
  2. LY

    I’ve been part of a mass layoff that qualified for TAA. When Nokia acquired Alcatel-Lucent, most of the US mobile networks development staff (the D in R&D) was laid off at multiple sites in multiple stages. Each site has to certify separately, and it had to be applied for by the affected workers.

    TAA renewal back then was also held up by Congressional brinksmanship.

    In my circle of colleagues, the biggest boon was the extended unemployment insurance. Finding suitable employment, especially without relocation, can easily exhaust UI. Many also used the health insurance tax credit to offset CORBA costs, but this required people to have a financial buffer as the reimbursement was after making the insurance payment, not to mention it was only 75% of the unsubsidized cost.

    Some did use the training for certificate programs. The program paid for tuition and allowed for collecting UI while training. The main problem was the short time period to decide to enroll in training, and the limits on tuition.

    The portions of TAA for helping older workers need strengthening. None of my older colleagues made under $50k, and many exhausted their benefits.

    Reply
  3. Paul Art

    Amen. We need to find ways of building and sustaining society without recourse to endless growth which would mean zero or very little manufacturing. Yesterday I read a column by Dean Baker in counterpunch where he completely eschews the ‘bring manufacturing back’ argument. As someone in hi-tech writing low level and signal processing software and continually assaulted by perpetual outsourcing, H1-B competition and global labor arbitrage I don’t know how this can be solved.

    Reply
    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, Paul.

      I am surprised by Dean Baker’s stance on bringing back manufacturing. He used to be sensible… As the west will soon find, off shoring potentially war making capability (at worst) is never a good idea.

      I imagine you are writing from the US due to referring to H1-B and “labor”. The same things afflict the UK and, in some sectors, got worse since Brexit.

      Altandmain has provided the solutions above. Having worked in financial services regulatory and trade policy from 2007 – 16, I reckon it’s time nation states and ordinary people asserted themselves.

      Reply
  4. HotFlash

    Questions for Altandmain and LY, or anyone who has experience with these programs. A dear friend was laid off from her Big Bank, along with a whole lot of her colleagues, back in the 80’s. The bank had made strenuous efforts to get staff to quit, but that is another story. She qualified for ‘retraining’ (this is a woman with a masters degree) so by golly, it was computer tech for her (despite no particular aptitude — again, another story).

    So, a whole lot of STEM courses as ‘prerequisites’, and then some computer courses. The provider for those was a private outfit (ka-ching!). She showed me some of the training materials, they were dumb beyond words. The detail was both too great and too little. Did she really need to know about n and p semi-conductors? Meanwhile, nothing about the then-current applications, which you’d actually need to know about for an actual, you know, job. The tech stuff was years behind the times. The only person in her class to eventually get a job from the course was a guy who ended up (wait for it) as an instructor for the private company. Oh, and another guy got a job driving school bus.

    All in all, I concluded that the retraining program was a goldmine for the private company, similar to the schools of cosmetology etc that qualify for student loans. Other than that, ‘retraining’ just softened the impact of mass layoffs by spreading them out a bit, time-wise. But yeah, the extended unemployment benefits were good.

    Reply
    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you.

      Over the summer of 2021, I was in a similar position as your friend, laid off from a big bank (that made life difficult for staff [or certain staff] in its quest to cut costs and avoid awkward questions about its conduct) and educated to masters level.

      It’s exactly how you conclude. There are also tax benefits for the employer by using training schemes.

      Altandmain, for whom I am truly sorry and hope and pray finds something suitable and worthwhile, is on the money with one exception, it’s not just the North American rich who are not worried about the working class. The rich are not worried about the middle class, either.

      Reply
    2. LY

      Looks like someone took a 1980’s Electrical Engineering curriculum and repackaged it. I’m not surprised at the dodgy private training institutes out there, like smaller scale Corinthian Colleges. My wife was bamboozled at one for ultrasound tech.

      The TAA training examples I know of were something like Project Management, Agile, or Six Sigma. The goal was to get credentials to get past robo-screeners and HR gatekeepers. For experienced programmers, certification in a new programming language (C#) or AI/machine learning also opens doors.

      I do know of some reputable programs, like programming boot camps, network engineer training, and CNC machinists. The better ones have a screening and weeding out process, and directly work with employers to place students. Within the last few years, colleges/universities now offer certificates and degrees (undergrad and graduate) in Informatics/Information Systems which are more practical and industry orientated than Computer Science.

      Reply
    3. Altandmain

      Thanks Colonel Smithers.

      One thing to note is that I live in Canada.

      Right now the government here does subsidize post-secondary education. I am told the American state governments are doing the same as well.

      Essentially what happens is that the government pays for tuition and depending on the situation may offer a stipend for living costs.

      Increasingly the government has been aggressively subsidizing the manufacturing operations themselves – Electric Vehicle manufacturing in particular is a big one right now that our government is basically handing money over to.

      Of course, I”m not sure this is actually working as intended. A large number of automotive companies are now engaging in stock buybacks.

      There are some fields where the government has no choice but to subsidize the communities – a large number of coal mining communities have been hurt by the coal plant closures – either due to low natural gas prices or a shift towards renewable energy.

      Keep in mind for many small towns, if the plant closes or if the mine closes, that’s it for that town.

      Reply
      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you.

        I agree with you and have seen first hand the impact on small communities.

        It’s interesting what you say about electric vehicle manufacturing. This happens here and will be turbo charged by the (neo liberal) Labour opposition if they return to power.

        I hope you are bearing up and find something worthwhile soon.

        Reply
  5. Jeff N

    It didn’t end there. This being the tail end of the Jimmy Carter era, we were presented another bonus. It seemed Jim had a powerful soft spot in his lust-leechin’ heart for unemployed factory goomers. Before he was booted out of office, he shoved through some bill called the Trade Readjustment Act (TRA) and, yipes, it was feedtime all over again for the old hip pocket.

    TRA was designed to provide financial assistance for autoworkers whose plants were closed due to the influx of foreign competition. I gladly took their money, though the pretense seemed rather misguided. I still maintain that blaming it all on the Japanese was a rather cowardly way of admitting “Aw, (family blog), who was the (family blog) in charge of mass-producing RHINOS when the public can only afford GERBILS.”

    I remember the day I received my lump-sum TRA payment. I had never seen such mirth and hysteria inside the GM-UAW Benefits office. Men were actually smiling and talking to one another. They would go sprinting out the door plantin’ high fives and wavin’ their odd-colored checks above their heads. It was all so contrary to the usual dull isolation of the cattle clog.

    When it was my turn, I stepped forward and presented my card. The claims lady handed me a receipt and directed me to the cashier’s desk. The cashier handed me my SUB pay and then began typing up my TRA check. Judging from the reaction of my fellow workers, I was soon to be a very exuberant heir. Who’d have guessed that gettin’ canned from your job could be such a bull market? Who cared? Praise the Lord and pass the allocation.

    I waited until I got back to my Camaro to look over my TRA check. The greed factor was already consuming me. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. I held my breath as I glanced over to the amount line. My eyes immediately popped out. Flashing back at me was a check in Bernard Hamper’s name for TWENTY-SEVEN HUNDRED AND 00 DOLLARS. Jesus, was I ever glad I had voted for Mr. Carter.
    —“Rivethead” memoir by Ben Hamper

    Reply

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