Archive for February, 2014

Can U.S. Glass Manufacturing “Come Back?”

February 5, 2014

In “The Myth of Industrial Rebound” in the New York Times Opinion pages (1/26/14) Steven Rattner notes that U.S. state, local and federal governments are all promoting the return of manufacturing jobs, but the possibility of rebuilding America’s manufacturing industries is not able to bring back manufacturing jobs at what union wages used to be.

“. . .we need to get real about the so-called renaissance, which has in reality been a trickle of jobs, often dependent on huge public subsidies.  Most important, in order to compete with China and other low-wage countries, these new jobs offer less in health care, pension and benefits than industrial workers historically received.”

I joined the staff of National Glass Budget in 1979.  As editor, I was responsible for not only the monthly magazine (later called ‘Glass News’) but also in charge of publishing the annual Glass Factory Directory.  The Directory, which began in 1912, is a reference to glass plant locations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.  When I started working at the National Glass Budget, we were one of three monthly glass manufacturing magazines, each with its own particular annual glass directory.  All three magazines are gone, only our Glass Factory Directory continues to be published.

I started visiting glass manufacturing locations within a year of starting work at National Glass Budget.  Early on,  I  realized that glass plants in the U.S. and Canada were closing.  I remember the plants I have visited over the years, too many names to mention, most of them no longer operating.  After each plant closed there was a time, in the 80s and 90s, when the glass plants and their equipment were still in the communities where people who had worked there lived.  However, the machinery from many U.S. and Canadian glass plants has been disassembled and sold and shipped overseas to be used in other glass manufacturing businesses.

In our 2013 Directory a number of small hand glass plants from previous editions are gone. These plants are no longer producing glass because they do not have the orders to keep employees working.  Often these plants keep a demonstration glass operation running as a tourist attraction, and they sell the inventory from the former manufacturing operation in a company store.

One of the most valuable characteristics of glass containers and so many decorative or useful glass products is the attractive appearance of glass items.  We often get calls from businesses interested in making a new glass product in a U.S. plant, or making it possible for them to make more products in the U.S. since their current U.S. manufacturer can not meet the growing need for their product.  They are  surprised that the plants which might have handled this additional production are already out of business.

When businesses ask me where the glass plants are which could make glass for them, I tell them that the number of glass plants in our Glass Factory Directory of North America today is about 25% of those which were operating and listed in the Directory when I first became the managing editor.  The number of engineering firms who can build and repair and improve glass melting facilities has also dropped, because there are fewer North American glass manufacturing plants to work with, and the competition to build and plants outside North America is fierce.  The number of recruiting firms who have provided glass plant managers, forming foremen and finishing workers for glass manufacturers is down as well.  The thousands of employees of glass plants in North America a few decades ago have retired, or relocated, or found another way to support their families.  If it were possible to build more glass manufacturing plants, new workers to operate the plants would have to be trained.

More than 10 years ago I got a call from a company which had been making its glass housewares outside the U.S.   I  look at glass items I see in department stores and gift stores to see where they are made, and so I knew that this company was not manufacturing in U.S. plants.  When I returned the call, one of the managers of this company talked to me about their interest in moving the manufacturing of their glass products to the U.S.  It was my job to tell him that there were very few glass plants still operating that could make the products the company sold.  When he asked me why there were so few, I told him that many glass plants which might have been able to make his company’s products had closed because they didn’t have enough customers to continue in business.  I continue to get several calls like this each year.

The U.S. government is interested in supporting manufacturing in the U.S. and creating more manufacturing jobs.   What I know is that since the glass machinery and glass manufacturing workers and their expertise is gone, it will not be possible to bring glass manufacturing in the U.S. anytime soon.  Glass manufacturing is one of several manufacturing industries which have seriously declined in the last 30 years, and it is impossible to bring them back.

posted Febuary 5, 2014

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