Across America, manufacturing workers and their families are starting to hope again. Unemployment remains unacceptably high at 8.2 percent, but it has come down from 10 percent in October 2009. After the worst recession since the Great Depression, the U.S. economy has created 4 million jobs over the past two years.
Working families have a message for Congress: Keep the fragile recovery alive. But unbelievably, Congress is on the verge of tacitly approving huge budget cuts that would send up to 1.5 million Americans back to the unemployment lines.
Massive budget cuts now would be like pulling the plug on a patient after he's awakened from a long coma and is about to walk for the first time in years. If you think no one would propose such cruelty to the working families of America, you're underestimating the tea party ideologues in Congress.
In fact, budget cuts scheduled to start next January could set back economic recovery for years. The automatic cuts, known as "sequestration," were set in motion by the failure of a congressional "Supercommittee" to develop a long-term budget plan last fall and will take effect Jan. 1 unless Congress approves a new agreement before then.
Sequestration cuts in the defense budget — a key driver of this Frankenstein's monster of job destruction — would be especially devastating to the economy because of the aerospace sector's importance to local economies across America. One study estimated that 1 million to 1.5 million workers would lose their jobs, increasing the unemployment rate by a full percentage point.
An estimated $86 billion would be removed from the economy from defense cuts alone, reducing economic growth by 25 percent. The respected, nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warns explicitly that defense sequestration cuts could help push the economy into another recession.
Sequestration would devastate our country's manufacturing base, not only destroying hundreds of thousands of decent jobs that bring economic security and dignity to American families, but also permanently weakening our ability to compete.
Aerospace is one of the few remaining manufacturing industries in which America is No. 1, and it's the largest net exporter of any industry — contributing more than $40 billion to our trade balance. The world comes to us for commercial and military aircraft, rockets and other space equipment and a wide assortment of related parts and services. But competitors are licking their chops and ready to pounce, as they did in so many other areas in recent decades. Government-owned aerospace companies in China, for example, would be thrilled if Congress forces our plants to close and our suppliers to go bankrupt.
And even if some plants manage to avoid that fate, history tells us that it's penny-wise but pound-foolish to shut down a production line, only to start it back up. When production of the B-1 bomber was temporarily canceled in the late 1970s and later resumed, the cost skyrocketed. Sequestration would amount to making the same mistake with our entire military aircraft modernization program.
Aerospace jobs aren't just any manufacturing jobs. These skilled positions provide above-average pay of $80,000 a year, on average, supporting families across the country. The aerospace industry supports 3.5 million jobs, including indirect employment by suppliers, vendors and supporting businesses.
It's mind-boggling that we're a little more than four months away from destroying our economic recovery by slashing deep into one area of government spending that a vast majority of Americans support: our national defense.
Indeed, most congressional Democrats and Republicans as well as the Obama administration have come out against chain-sawing our defense budget. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who recently advocated for a painful $487 billion cut to Pentagon spending over 10 years, says the sequestration cuts — which would slash an additional $500 billion over the next decade — would "hollow out" our armed forces by canceling needed modernization of air, land and sea equipment and drastically reducing research and development of new technologies.
We need leaders from both sides of the aisle to agree on a rational budget approach that protects America and doesn't snuff out economic recovery. If Congress fails, it will effectively pull the rug out from millions of Americans who are finally starting to hope for better days ahead. That would be a cruel fate that American working families don't deserve and that America can't afford.
Clayola Brown is national president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the nation's leading African-American labor organization. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.