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Why Buy American Campaigns Are Bad

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Chris Brooks has an excellent interview with the historian Dana Frank, who is an expert on so-called “Buy American” campaigns, as well as on guestworkers and many other things. Her books are excellent and you should read them. The interview explores the deep problem with Buy American campaigns because they are anti-worker and xenophobic.

Buy American campaigns became popular in the late 1970s as working people were trying to address capital flight and employers began turning on unions, demanding concessions. Again these campaigns had a very strong racist component. Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man, was killed by an auto plant superintendent and a laid-off auto worker, both white, in Detroit in the early eighties.

People trashed Japanese cars — even ones that were made by union workers in Japan, and Japanese cars made in the United States with union labor. This wasn’t just the auto workers, but many manufacturing unions. The Garment Workers launched an anti-Asian Buy American campaign, but had to back away from it due to pressure from Asian-American activists.

Like people in the 1970s, people today want to return to the so-called “golden age” when there were lots of jobs in heavy industry that were union, paid really well, and provided excellent benefits. They imagine that Buy American might help to bring all that back.

The problem is that employers have long since turned on the labor movement and driven down working conditions so far that is very hard to return to that world. The strategy being pursued by employers today is totally different from what unions faced in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Steelworkers and Auto Workers had these great jobs.

And, of course, that seeming golden age puts the focus on only one particular sector. Steel jobs were not naturally wonderful jobs with pensions and health care and high salaries. They had been hideous jobs where people worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, until the Congress of Industrial Organizations built powerful unions in the 1930s and changed all that.

Manufacturing is only 8 percent of all employment in the United States. What we need is a massive grassroots movement that makes all jobs — whether they are in manufacturing, or in service, or in agriculture — into really great jobs with union protections.

Indeed. And in response to this….

We do have to figure out what alternative progressive trade policies look like. We shouldn’t go down the free-trade path. Neither should we be going down the path of nationalist protectionism.

We need to be talking about a third path that puts labor rights and union protections first, as part of a broader package that also addresses immigration and is committed to raising working people’s wages and working conditions all over the world, through cross-border solidarity. We need domestic economic development that fosters good jobs without playing into an anti-immigrant framework.

Ideally, our unions would be the organizations in which working people would be figuring all of this out.

…let me just reiterate my own work on thinking through what progressive trade policies should look like.

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