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So I took a tour of a steel plant today. There was a lot of hot, molten steel, but also high-tech computerized systems running the show, making sure just enough steel is poured into a mold at just the right temperature and speed, among many other functions. The tour was sponsored by the Alliance for American Manufacturing and the Campaign for America’s Future as part of the Netroots Nation conference here in Pittsburgh.

On the way to the Edgar Thomson plant, we passed by the spot on the Monongahela River where, in 1892, striking steelworkers literally did battle with Pinkerton thugs who tried a sneak attack on them from barges in the river. The workers were prepared, and the Pinkertons surrendered. Ultimately, though, Carnegie, the owner of the plant, won the Homestead strike.

Passing by Homestead was a reminder that many people associate steel mills with the hazy history of our nation But this tour was not about nostalgia. It was about the future—and how steel plants and manufacturing must be an essential part of 21st century America, or our economy will wither. And while Homestead and other early 20th century labor battles often were hand-to-hand combat, the new corporate masters are no less brutal than the old—just a lot more clever.

Earlier today at the panel "Bloggers and Blue Collar Workers Unite: You Have Nothing to Lose but Wall Street Domination," Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) pointed to how the same anti-worker corporate interests that are fighting health care reform and other key progressive issues push relentlessly to move overseas family-supporting jobs like those at steel plants.

These same corporate interests ensure that Congress maintains policies that reward their short-term profits—like sending jobs overseas—rather than developing long-term strategies for strengthening our economy.

A far-reaching policy would place the United States at the center of green jobs creation. It would understand that when manufacturing jobs go away, so does the R&D—and our nation cannot get ahead with such a brain drain. It would recognize that the current economic disaster showed that the nation cannot rely on the financial services industry as the generator of its economy. If we don’t make things, that is, if U.S. manufacturing is not revived, we will have nothing to export and no job creation.

United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, who also was on the panel, noted that it’s no accident that China is making 90 percent of the solar panels in the world. China’s government wants its country to be at the forefront of this technology, and so it is.

Edwards discussed how the creation of a high-speed train in this country passed Congress—yet we have no way to make any of the tracks, cars or engines for the new system.

The USW members at the U.S. Steel plant are proud of what they do, and it showed as they maneuvered our groups around the massive machines and 3,000-degree steel plates. They know what too many Americans don’t—unless we make things in this country, we die.