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Raising profile of U.S. job loss 'Cheers' actor Ratzenberger hosts event on declining blue-collar force

Dan Bobro was among the thousands left jobless when Bethlehem Steel shuttered its main plant in Lackawanna in 1981.

Thursday, he was one of about 500 people who attended a meeting that decried the erosion of U.S. manufacturing amid the rise of globalism.

As election time approaches, the "Keep It Made in America" event was designed to energize voters to demand action from politicians. Bobro, of Hamburg, was already energized.

"We vote these people in -- they take care of the [lobbyists] and don't do anything," he said.

The Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for American Manufacturing, organizer of the event, brought the program to Buffalo to raise the profile of trade issues before New York's presidential primary on Feb. 5.

The advocacy group is backed by the United Steelworkers of America and unionized steel producers including United States Steel and Allegheny Technologies.

Fair trade is being pushed to the back of the political agenda behind Iraq, the environment and other issues, the manufacturing group says.

"We want people to ask candidates what they're going to do," said Scott N. Paul, executive director of the nonprofit.

Event host John Ratzenberger, famous for his role as Cliff Clavin on television's "Cheers," drew the crowd to its feet as he bounded to the stage at Babeville, the converted church on Delaware Avenue. Pointing to his own blue-collar roots in Bridgeport, Conn., he said the country loses more than jobs when factories close.

"We have a civilization at stake here," he said. "If you don't have manufacturing, you don't have a pizza place, a tire store -- the roads aren't kept up because nobody can pay the taxes."

The host of the Travel Channel's "Made in America" program, Ratzenberger has hosted pro-manufacturing meetings in other cities, including Manchester, N.H.; Des Moines, Iowa; Columbus, Ohio; and Pittsburgh.

The event, organized as a panel discussion after Ratzenberger's talk, also included comments from County Executive-elect Chris Collins, United Steelworkers District Director William Pienta and other community leaders and members.

The U.S. shift to service jobs, far from being neutral, is skewing economic benefits toward the wealthy and eroding the middle class, Pienta said.

The issue strikes a chord in Western New York, which has felt the loss of factories and their good-paying jobs. The Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro area lost 25,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000, leaving 58,600. Since 1990, the sector has shed 34,700 jobs, according to the state Labor Department.

Some who attended the free event said they were concerned about the effect of the factory decline on the broader economy, and on national security.

"We're paying a foreign country to take our jobs away," said Springville resident Louis Starr, a retired sheriff's deputy. Holding up his coat, he said he had gone to several stores trying to find one made in the United States, without success. He settled on one from Indonesia.

"At least it wasn't China," he said.

The U.S. trade deficit was a record $763.6 billion last year, $232.5 billion of that with China. While fingers point at unfair practices, economists say the gap is also partly the result of a debt-fueled U.S. spending binge that attracts imports.

The Bush administration announced Thursday that China agreed to dismantle a system of taxes that subsidized its exports to the United States and other nations. The move came in response to a U.S. complaint to the World Trade Organization. But Democratic critics said the deal falls short of correcting the imbalance in U.S.-China trade.

At the meeting, China was a focus of criticism, especially for allowing industry to pollute heavily while U.S. producers are held to environmental standards.

But fingers also pointed closer to home. Hollywood has contributed to trashing the image of factory workers by often portraying them as ugly and stupid, Ratzenberger said. Parents who have bought into the image have withdrawn support for school shop programs and factory careers.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, denied that Washington is ignoring trade issues. Trade agreements need to have enforceable standards for trading partners, he said.


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