A Driving Force in the Downturn
Friday, May 22, 2009
Ed Montgomery is so new to his job that the only things on the wall of his sparse office at the Department of Labor are a couple of unemployment charts and a pair of color-coded maps highlighting the communities hardest hit by the collapse of the American auto industry.
The Midwest is a blotch of dark purple.
The maps show the challenge Montgomery, 53, is up against as Obama's point man to help auto workers and communities that depend on the sector. A month into the job and in between a recent trip to Michigan and a two-day tour of Ohio yesterday and today, Montgomery said a plea in Warren, Mich., reminded him of just how serious the crisis is for some cities. A United Way director told Montgomery the No. 1 request on a help line is food.
"That reminds you this is real. People are hurting . . . You look at numbers. You can look at statistics. You look at unemployment rates," he said, but hearing that example stuck with him.
"Until you actually confront the fact of what it means to try to live on and try to feed a family of four on the benefits that are out there . . . in some cases people don't have that or in some cases multiple family members have lost their jobs," he said. "It's palpable."
Creating a senior position in the administration to help a battered industry's workers is new and unique, according to labor historians and economists. There was no identical position for Pittsburgh's steel industry, for instance.
For now, Montgomery operates from mostly a bully pulpit. He has a skeleton staff and a small budget. Much of his work will involve pushing department secretaries in Washington to cut red tape and steering some money from the $700-billion plus stimulus package to hard-hit auto towns.
"Ed is their best hope," said Robert Schwab, associate dean at the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland. "But we've all got to recognize there are limitations to what Ed or anybody can do. You're fighting an economic fact: The auto industry is going to be a shadow of what it was."
In Flint, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) teased Montgomery about his "fancy title" -- director of recovery for auto communities and workers. The reality of Montgomery's job, Levin said: "He's our lobbyist."
Montgomery calls himself a facilitator or a coordinator. "I don't have the magic bullet, but I sure would like to help and see if I can move it forward and craft a solution and help people," he said.
Montgomery is not creating government-funded programs or initiatives. Instead, he is trying to link struggling communities to ongoing federal efforts. For example, Montgomery told community and business leaders in Michigan about funds available through the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up old industrial sites. He also promoted stimulus funds to help extend small-business loans to companies including auto dealers and suppliers.
At a stop yesterday in Dayton, Ohio, Montgomery said $50 million in stimulus money would go to help train workers in auto communities for jobs in the green energy sector. Next week, he is expected to travel to Detroit to listen to Michigan energy officials and help kick off workshops to show cities and towns how to access nearly $80 million of stimulus funds to help them develop new, green jobs.
"The government has made a large amount of money available," Montgomery said. "My job is to make sure people who are affected in these communities have full access to those resources, are able to tap into them, know how to get to use them . . . quickly and effectively."
Montgomery left his job as dean at the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences to work for the administration. Having served as the No. 2 official in the Labor Department during the Clinton administration, he helped lead President Obama's Labor Department transition team. When Lawrence H. Summers, one of Obama's top economic advisers and Montgomery's graduate school classmate, called to persuade him to help with the struggling auto industry, Montgomery admits it wasn't a hard sell. "He had me at hello," he said.
Born in New York, Montgomery is the younger of two sons. When he was an infant, his parents moved to Minnesota, where his father worked as a machinist.
He recalled that he would get excited when he came home from school some afternoons to find his father's toolbox there -- not realizing at the time that it meant bad news. His father had been let go, again. After repeated layoffs, his father went into academia, eventually teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and Yale, where he became a labor historian.
Montgomery, whose wife is the granddaughter of a General Motors worker from Portland, Mich., lives in Howard County and drives a 2000 Lincoln. He used to drive his 1990 Harley-Davidson motorcycle to College Park. He's broad-shouldered and wears black-framed glasses that make him look like the college professor he was.
Montgomery has written extensively on labor unions, unemployment and other economic trends. He is careful to point out that textbooks often give examples of how things should work on average, but that the solutions may not work for every city. Health care jobs may thrive in one town, for example, while manufacturing parts for wind turbines may be a better fit in another.
"This is a bottom-up effort," Montgomery recently told a group of politicians, community leaders and auto workers at a community college in Flint. "This is not Washington talking to Flint. This is Flint talking to Washington."
When Montgomery was young, his family eventually settled in Pittsburgh, where he said he watched the rise and fall of the steel industry. He recalled that in the early 1980s, when he was a young professor at Carnegie Mellon University, his friends would tease him that he needed to find a job that paid more.
They were making $30,000 to $40,000 a year with overtime in the then-vibrant steel mills. He was earning $19,000. But when the mills started closing, some of those friends were laid off. "It was real to see what they were going through," he said.
He said he sees parallels in the fall of Pittsburgh's steel industry and the auto industry's struggles. In their heydays, both sectors "generated a way for people to get good, middle-class jobs," Montgomery said.
"That paid well, provided health-care benefits that provided a pension. What too many folks are going through is the threat to that and in some cases losing those jobs and losing that middle-class existence."