Asheville, N.C. — President Barack Obama pushed for a higher minimum wage at a re-opened manufacturing plant in Asheville Wednesday because he says Americans who work full-time should not be in poverty.
The president followed up his call for the increase from $7.25 to $9 an hour in Tuesday night's State of the Union address with a trip to reach voters outside Washington on the plan.
In 2011, Canadian-based Linamar Corp. announced that its fourth U.S. manufacturing facility would be at the site of a shuttered Volvo Construction Equipment plant in Asheville that closed in 2010 and laid off 220 workers.
Since then, the company has hired 160 workers and will hire 40 more by the end of the year. It's expected to expand the operation further to 650 jobs and boost the total capital investment from $75 million to $200 million.
"There's a good story to tell here," Obama said, touted it as an example of America attracting jobs from overseas. "A few years ago, a manufacturing comeback in Asheville may not have seemed real likely. Volvo had just left town. This plant had just gone dark, 228 jobs had vanished, and it was a big blow for this area."
The key to reviving America's economy, he said, is to bring more jobs to the United States, give Americans the skills they need to perform them and provide those workers with a decent living.
"There's no magic bullet here, it's just some common sense stuff. People still have to work hard," Obama said, arguing that just a few structural changes could have an outsize impact. He said he needs Congress to help pass his initiatives.
"It's not a Democratic thing or a Republican thing," he said. "Our job as Americans is to restore that basic bargain that says if you work hard, if you meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead."
"If you work full time, you shouldn't be in poverty," Obama said to applause.
But House Speaker John Boehner was not warm to the plan.
"When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it," he told reporters Wednesday morning. "At a time when the American people are still asking the question, 'Where are the jobs?' why would we want to make it harder for small employers to hire people?"
Linamar produces heavy-duty engine and driveline components. The average employee makes about $40,000.
The sleeves rolled up on his white dress shirt, Obama stopped to chat with workers at the plant, patting them on the back as he inspected the equipment. He signed some type of large red toolbox and later posed for photos with what appeared to be a few managers from the plant.
His remarks had all the trapping of a campaign-style rally — the barricades, the platforms and professional lights, and patriotic music drowning out the cheers of a few hundred people who gathered inside the factory to hear him speak.
Obama will make stops in Atlanta on Thursday and Chicago on Friday to continue pushing his second-term agenda outlined in the State of the Union address.
In his bid to boost manufacturing, Obama is launching three "manufacturing innovation institutes" — partnerships among the private sector, the federal government and colleges "to develop and build manufacturing technologies and capabilities that will help U.S.-based manufacturers and workers create good jobs," according to a White House fact sheet. He is asking Congress to create 15 more institutes.
The proposal is a central element of Obama's plan to spur manufacturing, which has been a bright spot in the U.S. economy.
The Linamar plant provides a perfect backdrop for the president, said Ben Teague, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County.
"It's a success story," Teague said, adding that manufacturing in the area has "tremendous momentum behind it."
"We've actually seen growth in the last few years, which is great," he said.
One of the keys to the area's manufacturing success is the partnership between manufacturers and colleges. Officials are working to make sure companies have a highly skilled workforce to fill the new manufacturing jobs, Teague said.
The western part of the state was once home to thriving textile and furniture companies. But over the past 20 years, many of those plants have been closed as companies moved production overseas because of cheaper costs.
The area is beginning to see a turnaround, Teague said.
In the last three years, manufacturers have invested nearly $520 million and created nearly 1,900 good-paying jobs in the Asheville area.
They include Arvato Digital Services, which invested $1.8 million and created nearly 410 jobs, and New Belgium Brewing, which is constructing a $175 million brewery that will create 154 jobs.