The majestic steel beams of a soaring office tower beginning to rise from the ruins of the World Trade Center are a tribute to American resilience, but also a marker in the decline of yet another industry. Not an inch of imported glass went into the two lost towers, built 40 years ago. The lower floors of the new one will soon be sheathed in Chinese glass.
The decline of glassmaking in America started gradually in the 1990s and accelerated during the Great Recession. What’s more, the big companies, like Corning and Guardian Industries, say that even as the economy improves, they are unlikely to bring domestic employment and production back to prerecession levels. Imports, for one thing, inhibit sales. And bigger profits lie abroad, so they are channeling investment and expansion to their overseas factories.
“Those who are looking through the rearview mirror, waiting for the glass industry in this country to come back, should know it isn’t going to come back, not the way it was,” Russell J. Ebeid, Guardian’s chairman, said in an interview.
With the nation’s unemployment rate hovering at 10 percent, the possibility of stemming job losses holds considerable appeal. So, in an argument likely to be repeated if unemployment persists at record high levels, some are pressing the Obama administration to offer protection for the nation’s glassworkers by raising existing tariffs on imported glass, particularly from China, as is happening on steel and tires. That action or something similar is supported by the United Steelworkers and also by many of the small manufacturers that operate more than 300 factories in this country.
They say that Chinese glassmakers are competitive in the American marketplace only because they have received giant subsidies in recent years from the Chinese government. The subsidies offset, among other things, the high cost of shipping heavy glass — auto windshields, for example — across the Pacific.
“We definitely need to put tariffs on some of the glass coming from China,” said Tim Tuttle, chairman of the glass industry department of the United Steelworkers. Overall industry employment has declined 30 percent over the last nine years, to fewer than 95,000 workers, 15,000 of them unionized.
The Obama administration shies away from identifying specific industries, like tires, steel and now glass, for special protection from imports. “The president wants to help create the economic conditions such that broad new industries can evolve consistent with his priorities, particularly in the area of clean energy,” said Jared Bernstein, chief economist to the vice president.
That caution reflects the free trade thinking of many mainstream economists and trade experts. They contend that in a global economy that has minimized tariff barriers and subsidies, each country will concentrate — if not immediately, then over the long run — on the goods and services it is best at producing, and trade them for what other countries are best at producing, thus maximizing output across the globe.
The United Steelworkers endorses free trade, but insists that in the cases of tires, steel pipe and now glass, Chinese government subsidies have undercut the market forces on which free trade depends.
Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, still a big glassmaking state, takes the argument a step further. Given the deep symbolism of the new World Trade Center tower, he considers awarding the glass contracts to the lowest bidders, as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey did last year, a blow to national pride.
“Imagine China,” he said in an interview, “building a huge structure intended to be an important national symbol and importing glass from the United States to build it. There is no way the Chinese would do that.”
Beijing Glass won in the bidding to supply the opaque, blast-resistant glass for the first 20 floors of the new tower, which is now just seven stories of steel beams, a stub along the Lower Manhattan skyline, and still dwarfed by the huge cranes putting the framework in place.
While the Steelworkers and many smaller companies seek protection, the big glassmakers generally do not. Some, with factories in China, have benefited from the subsidies, and also from the economies of scale that operating in China make possible: access to a rapidly growing market there and competitively priced exports to the United States.
In the Trade Center bidding, Guardian won as the supplier of the intricately layered glass for the upper 85 floors. It will soon make that glass at a factory in Carleton, Mich. But even as company executives described this victory in interviews this month, they sent out a news release noting a greater one.
Guardian manufactured all the glass — more than two million square feet of it — for the newly opened 160-story Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building. That glass came not from America, but from Guardian’s factories in Germany and Luxembourg. The company now has 36 plants abroad, employing 9,000 people, up from 6,500 workers in 2005 and, for the first time, surpassing the number of Guardian employees in this country.
“Nearly three-quarters of our sales are outside the United States,” Mr. Ebeid said. “That has been steadily increasing since 1981, when we were totally a domestic supplier.”
Like many glass factories in the United States — those that have survived the recession — the Guardian plant in Carleton is operating at less than 85 percent of capacity, producing long strips of coated “float” glass from which windows, glassware, fiber optics, auto windshields, solar panels and other glass products are fashioned. Employment has fallen to 410 people, from 520 as the recession was getting under way in January 2008.
The work force will not return to the old level, says Gerry Hool, the plant manager. That is partly because of new efficiencies, but also because imported glass now accounts for nearly 24 percent of domestic consumption, up from 21 percent just four years ago. What’s more, the industry’s biggest customers — automakers and home builders — are not likely to raise production to the levels reached during the housing bubble and before the credit crisis.
“Maybe in better times we’ll get back to 450 workers,” Mr. Hool said.
Some pockets of strength remain. Beer and wine bottles are made in this country, at automated plants. And from two factories in the Ohio Valley, operating 24/7, the Anchor Hocking Company churns out baking dishes, drinking glasses, glass canisters, glass candleholders and glass meter covers, counting on customer service, like just-in-time delivery to Wal-Mart, to stave off imports. Anchor Hocking has no factories abroad.
But elsewhere in the Ohio Valley, dozens of companies that once made glass for the furniture industry, concentrated just to the south in the Carolinas, are gone. As furniture-making moved offshore, so did the glass that went with it: glass tabletops, for example, and glass for framed mirrors.
Colored glass is another victim. A hundred companies in the valley once made “art” glass — figurines, flower vases, lamps, perfume bottles, bowls and woven glass baskets — employing hundreds of skilled glass blowers and pressers. They are mostly gone. Many were family-owned enterprises, like Fenton Art Glass in Williamstown, W.Va., a rare survivor run by George W. Fenton, a grandson of the founder.
“We make a product that no one needs; we are purely discretionary,” Mr. Fenton said, noting that the recession devastated discretionary spending.
Employment at the Fenton plant is down to 125 people from a peak of 700 in 2000. Imports are also a problem, but Mr. Fenton, rather than fight them, has become an importer himself, reselling what he purchases abroad — a sideline that now contributes 10 percent of revenue.
“I need some relief from government to stay in business,” Mr. Fenton said, referring to the tariff proposal, “but I’m not sure it is the government’s role to keep me in business.”