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At local union HQ, Casey warns of China threat, calls on U.S. to 'take control of our future'

Bob Casey meets with audience members.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey meets with audience members on June 30, 2023, after a speech on how the United States should respond to the economic threat posed by China.

Speaking to labor leaders and elected officials Friday at a Carpenters facility outside Pittsburgh, U.S. Senator Bob Casey argued that facing the threat from China abroad requires investing more in workers and industries back home.

“We're confronted every day by Chinese economic aggression,” Casey told a receptive audience at the headquarters for the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters. “We have an opportunity to take control of our future, our economic future, our energy future, our environmental future, and our national security future. But we as a nation need to prioritize our workers to do that.”

Casey’s half-hour speech traversed familiar themes for a senator who has long espoused American manufacturing and the cause of organized labor. And it comes as both he and President Joe Biden are laying groundwork for re-election bids next year — campaigns in which the economy and threats from China may prove to be key issues.

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Casey said three Biden initiatives — the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act — are rehabilitating long-neglected infrastructure and creating 50,000 jobs in Pennsylvania alone. More broadly, he said, they amount to a “once-in-a-generation investment in … the technologies and the economy of the future.”

Casey also expressed optimism about southwestern Pennsylvania’s efforts to construct a federally sponsored “hydrogen hub” — a network of energy producers and consumers that rely on hydrogen as a fuel source. The prospect has been embraced by many, even though producing the hydrogen itself would rely on burning fossil fuels, but Casey said a hub could “power the industries upon which our workers and our world depends.”

“We used to make a lot of things here in America, and we're starting to get back to doing that," he said. "But we have a long way to go."

By focusing on investments in semiconductors and other technology, he said, Democrats hoped to return “the American economic might and independence of the 20th century but adapted to the advances, the demands and the opportunities of the 21st century.”

Competition with China made such investments all the more pressing, he said. While Casey and other speakers took pains to say they had no grievance with the Chinese people, and still less with Americans of Chinese descent, “We're in competition with a communist government that does not play by the rules. ...The Chinese government restricts access to their own markets for our companies but steals our technology for the benefit of its own industries.”

Casey noted that in 2014, federal prosecutors named a handful of Chinese military personnel in a conspiracy to hack Pittsburgh-area firms such as US Steel in an effort to obtain trade secrets. He repeated calls for the National Critical Capabilities Defense Act, which requires a more rigorous review process for companies that want to offshore jobs and technologies that China could acquire and copy.

Casey also recalled the difficulty in obtaining personal protective gear for medical workers in the early days of the pandemic, along with shortages in automobile parts and cell phones. In a similar crisis, he said, “The vulnerabilities to our economy could expand dangerously. … China could intentionally withhold resources to cripple our economy. And we need to be prepared for that scenario.”

But Casey also argued that the success of trade policy abroad requires holding corporations more accountable at home. He criticized corporations for spending a record $1.2 trillion on stock buybacks last year (a sum that may well be eclipsed in 2023), rather than investing it in the broader economy.

“With that same money they could have given every single worker a $7,500 raise and still be profitable,” he said.

“We as a nation will not allow China to determine our economic future,” he concluded. “We as Americans will decide by investing in American ingenuity, respecting the dignity of hard work and those who do it, and delivering our economic might, the promise of prosperity and opportunity to the next generation."

None of this was new for Casey, whose concern about the threat of foreign trade was a rare place of common ground with former President Donald Trump. (Casey lauded Trump’s 2017 decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a trade deal criticized as too friendly to China — and renegotiate trade terms with Mexico and Canada.) His support of unions and manufacturing dovetails even more closely with that of Biden, who among other things has kept in place Trump’s tariffs on China.

But as familiar as the topic of China is to Casey, it has gained new political relevance.

Casey is gearing up for a 2024 reelection bid that is likely to be challenged by Republican Dave McCormick, a hedge fund manager whose own business ties to China were a political liability during an unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid last year. This spring, McCormick released a book, “Superpower in Peril,” which urged a more protectionist approach to trade along with domestic policies that include more investment in research and development. But Democrats have already begun criticizing investments by his former firm, Bridgewater Associates, in Chinese tech firms including web-search company Baidu.

Casey’s speech Friday was an official Senate appearance, not a campaign stop. But in remarks of their own, union leaders made it clear that Casey had fought for them — and they’d be returning the favor next year.

“We’ve seen electeds come and go. but once in a generation one comes along that separates themselves [and] truly stands with workers,” said Darrin Kelly, the head of the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council and arguably the top union official in the region. “We’ve always said, ‘Thank God for Bob Casey.’”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.