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Local Mack employee meets President Biden during plant visit

A Palmerton man was thrown into the spotlight Wednesday when he was photographed with President Joe Biden on his visit to the Mack Trucks Plant in Macungie.

The president checked out half-built big rigs and chatted up workers, as his administration pushes new “Buy American” efforts and advocates for government investments and clean energy as ways to strengthen U.S. manufacturing.

Kevin Fronheiser, of Palmerton, is the union shop chairman. He spoke with Biden during the plant tour.

“This was a great opportunity, for not just the memberships, but for the plant to thrive too. We’re making the trucks start to finish, United States, by union labor. That’s what this is about.”

Biden toured the Lehigh Valley operations facility, hoping to connect with the plant’s 2,500 workers. Biden has made manufacturing jobs a priority, and Democrats’ political future next year might hinge on whether he succeeds in reinvigorating a sector that has steadily lost jobs for more than four decades.

The administration is championing a $973 billion infrastructure package, $52 billion for computer chip production, sweeping investments in clean energy and the use of government procurement contracts to create factory jobs.

Fronheiser, a second-generation Mack employee, said, “I had different union and supervisor employees on the ground. They explained, at each spot, what their role was and what they did. He (Biden) got very personable and asked them personal questions. He’s very personable.”

After the tour, they continued talking.

“From there, we had a sit-down, and he talked about the infrastructure, and that’s what we really need. Some of my plant has been shut down for four weeks because we can’t get the parts. If we can start building those parts in America, we can start controlling that. More parts being made in America is more Americans working, and potentially more union and better-paying jobs.”

The plant was neatly organized, with the thousands of truck parts organized in aisles and the hulls of half-finished trucks awaiting the president’s inspection.

The plant was silent other than the whir of fans. Work was halted to accommodate Biden’s visit.

“The ability to build and sell these new trucks would be helped by the president’s proposed investment in buy American production incentives for domestic electric vehicle manufacturing,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jeanne-Pierre said.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., commented that Biden should siphon off unspent money from his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package to cover the investments in infrastructure, instead of relying on tax increases and other revenue-raisers to do so.

“Hopefully, he will use his visit to learn about the real, physical infrastructure needs of Pennsylvanians - and the huge sums of unused ‘COVID’ funds which should pay for that infrastructure,” Toomey said in a statement.

The Biden administration is trying to help domestic manufacturers by proposing to increase the amount of American-made goods being purchased by the federal government.

Administration officials said they are proposing that any products bought by the government must have 60% of the value of their component parts manufactured in the United States. The proposal would gradually increase that figure to 75% by 2029, significantly higher than the 55% threshold under current law. The officials were not authorized to publicly discuss the measures and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Manufacturing has improved since the depths of more than a year ago during the coronavirus pandemic-induced recession. Labor Department data show that factories have regained about two-thirds of the 1.4 million manufacturing jobs lost because of the outbreak. Factory output as tracked by the Federal Reserve is just below its pre-pandemic levels.

But the manufacturing sector - especially autos - is facing serious challenges.

Automakers are limited by a global shortage of computer chips. Without the chips that are needed for a modern vehicle, the production of cars and trucks has dropped from an annual pace of 10.79 million at the end of last year to 8.91 million in June, a decline of nearly 18% as measured by the Fed.

Analysts at IHS Market estimate that the supply of semiconductors will only stabilize and recover in the second half of 2022, right as the midterm races become more intense.

For the past several decades, presidents have pledged to bring back factory jobs without much success. Manufacturing employment peaked in 1979 at nearly 19.6 million jobs, only to slide downward with steep declines after the 2001 recession and the 2007-09 Great Recession. The figure now stands at 12.3 million.

Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump each said his policies would save manufacturing jobs, yet none of them broke the long-term trend in a lasting way.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

President Joe Biden walks with Mack Trucks President Martin Weissburg, right, and UAW Local 677 Shop Chairman Kevin Fronheiser of Palmerton, left, during a tour of the Lehigh Valley operations facility for Mack Trucks in Macungie, Wednesday. AP PHOTO/SUSAN WALSH
President Joe Biden leaves the Lehigh Valley International Airport after visiting the Mack Trucks plant in Macungie. SCOTT NAGY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS