The 2011 Washington Forum offered everything attendees have come to expect from a well-run, highly organized legislative/environmental conference: appointments on Capitol Hill; a stable of dynamic, knowledgeable, entertaining speakers; a diverse array of pertinent, topical presentations; and a networking atmosphere conducive to insightful exchanges and discussions on a host of regulatory matters and business issues impacting the surface finishing sector. If it were a "Broadway" show, it could not have been scripted any better.

There’s just one nagging little problem: the vast majority of surface finishing industry members—finishers and suppliers alike—don’t bother to attend. Not that I don’t look forward to catching up with familiar faces and colleagues in D.C. every year, but it’s typically the same 100 or so stalwarts who turn out at the Forum year after year in support of the conference. Where are the thousands of other owners, managers, and supervisors, etc., estimated to be currently operating in our industry? If there was ever a more opportune time to demonstrate our influence as an industry and our impact on manufacturing (and vice-versa) it’s at the Forum!

Now, before you start lobbing darts in my direction, I do realize that in these lean times it's not always feasible for shop owners and principals to dedicate two to three days out of what is likely an already tight schedule to attend an industry conference. There’s not only the additional cost of transportation, hotels, meals, incidentals, etc., but also the “intangibles” to consider when you’re out of the office or away from your plant. I get all that. But to remain consistently absent from what is arguably the single-most important industry event borders on apathy. I’m sure you don’t need me to remind you that critical decisions are being made virtually every day down in D.C. Sadly, too many folks are not taking part in those discussions regarding policy decisions—rulings and enforcements that not only impact relevant chemicals and processes regularly employed in our business, but also issues related to worker and workplace rules, health care and tax reforms, and manufacturing in general.

To be fair, I completely understand and appreciate the frustrations inherent in trying to encourage lawmakers to adopt more industry-friendly policies. Those infinitely more experienced in lobbying efforts and governmental relations will tell you that it requires an ample supply of both patience and persistence to see results. While you might feel your efforts go unnoticed, or that you could be wasting your time meeting with your representatives, please consider this: the alternative--inaction and disengagement--would be disastrous. No, it's not a perfect system, but when the political process functions properly, it's pretty darn good.

At the risk of sounding like a stumper for the NASF (you don’t have to be a member to attend the Washington Forum, by the way), there are merits in participating in the ongoing political discourse as it pertains to shaping regulations impacting manufacturing. Fairly or unfairly, a lot depends on the “size and scale” a particular industry or sector brings to bear on lawmakers. In other words, we need to stay in their faces, en masse--and often! Just ask Omar Nashashibi of the Franklin Partnership, which represents the Precision Metalformers Association and the National Tooling & Machining Association. Their driving philosophy, “One Voice,” supports the notion that power is best asserted collectively.

In illustrating the importance of sustained involvement in the political process, I think Kevin Bradley, president of the Nickel Institute, probably framed it most appropriately, telling Forum attendees: “If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.”

Let’s not get eaten alive.