Silk-screened glass panels manufactured by Owatonna-based Viracon form the exterior walls of the new Minneapolis Central Library. The pattern on the south side represents snowy branches.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

U.S. glassmakers: Half empty or half full?

  • Article by: LOUIS UCHITELLE
  • New York Times
  • January 18, 2010 - 9:20 PM
The majestic steel beams of a soaring office tower beginning to rise from the ruins of the World Trade Center are a tribute to American resilience, but also a marker in the decline of yet another industry. Not an inch of imported glass went into the two lost towers, built 40 years ago. The lower floors of the new one will soon be sheathed in Chinese glass.

The decline of glassmaking in America started gradually in the 1990s and accelerated during the Great Recession. What's more, the big companies, like Corning and Guardian Industries, say that even as the economy improves, they are unlikely to bring domestic employment and production back to prerecession levels. Imports, for one thing, inhibit sales. And bigger profits lie abroad, so they are channeling investment and expansion to overseas factories.

"Those who are looking through the rearview mirror, waiting for the glass industry in this country to come back, should know it isn't going to come back, not the way it was," Russell Ebeid, Guardian's chairman, said in an interview.

With the nation's unemployment rate hovering at 10 percent, the possibility of stemming job losses holds considerable appeal. So, in an argument likely to be repeated if unemployment persists at record levels, some are pressing the Obama administration to offer protection for the nation's glassworkers by raising existing tariffs on imported glass, particularly from China, as is happening on steel and tires.

That action or something similar is supported by the United Steelworkers and also by many of the small manufacturers that operate more than 300 factories in this country.

They say that Chinese glassmakers are competitive in the American marketplace only because they received giant subsidies in recent years from their government. The subsidies offset, among other things, the high cost of shipping heavy glass -- auto windshields, for example -- across the Pacific.

"We definitely need to put tariffs on some of the glass coming from China," said Tim Tuttle, chairman of the glass industry department of the United Steelworkers. Overall industry employment has declined 30 percent over the last nine years, to fewer than 95,000 workers, 15,000 of them unionized.

The Obama administration shies away from identifying specific industries, like tires, steel and now glass, for special protection from imports. "The president wants to help create the economic conditions such that broad new industries can evolve consistent with his priorities, particularly in the area of clean energy," said Jared Bernstein, chief economist to the vice president.

"We are seeing the influence of the Chinese," said Christine Shaffer, marketing manager for Viracon, an Owatonna, Minn.-based company that fabricates glass for buildings, including the World Trade Center. The competition, she said, is in specific markets, including Las Vegas and New York City.

The company is a unit of Bloomington-based Apogee Enterprises Inc., an architectural glass supplier. Viracon adds energy-efficient coatings and other high-performance features to glass at plants in Minnesota, Utah and Georgia. Apogee had 4,422 employees last February, down by more than 1,000 from a year earlier. Current employment figures were not available Monday.

Viracon is fabricating the glass curtain wall for floors 21-108 of the Freedom Tower. It did not bid on the first 20 floors, which will have a customized glass that Viracon doesn't offer. Viracon also fabricated energy-efficient glass for the completed Seven World Trade Center and for Four World Trade Center, now under construction, she added.

While the Steelworkers and many smaller companies seek protection, the big glassmakers generally do not. Some, with factories in China, have benefited from the subsidies, and also from the economies of scale that operating in China make possible: access to a rapidly growing market there and competitively priced exports to the United States.

In the Trade Center bidding, Beijing Glass won as the supplier of the opaque, blast-resistant glass for the first 20 floors of the new tower.

Guardian won as the supplier of the intricately layered glass for the upper 85 floors. It will soon make that glass at a factory in Carleton, Mich. (Viracon customizes the glass with coatings and other safety features.) But even as Guardian executives described this victory in interviews, they sent out a news release noting a greater one.

Guardian manufactured all the glass -- more than 2 million square feet of it -- for the newly opened 160-story Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world's tallest building. That glass came not from America, but from Guardian's factories in Germany and Luxembourg. The company now has 36 plants abroad, employing 9,000 people, up from 6,500 workers in 2005 and, for the first time, surpassing the number of Guardian employees in this country.

"Nearly three-quarters of our sales are outside the United States," Ebeid said. "That has been steadily increasing since 1981, when we were totally a domestic supplier."

Staff writer David Shaffer contributed to this report.

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