Buy American: It's Not Just for Rednecks Anymore

Bill Moberly was an Indiana autoworker in the 1970s when the "Buy American" movement took off -- a nationalistic response to the sharpening competition from fuel-efficient Japanese cars at a time when gas prices were soaring. "Some of the early Buy American campaigns were really more U.S. manufacturer-driven campaigns aimed at consumers," Moberly said. Unions signed up in hopes of protecting the well-paid jobs of their members. The United Auto Workers "began the Buy American pitch right in line with what the Big Three were doing." Wrapped in the flag, the Buy American slogan for many had the ring of jingoism. "It focused more on 'let's keep jobs here,' and not the other side of it -- are people [overseas] really being helped," said Frank Shansky, an American Federation of Teachers staff member who represents Milwaukee Area Technical College teachers and once viewed the slogan a bit skeptically. Adds Julie Enslow, who edits the Milwaukee Peace Action Center's newsletter: "Twenty years ago we might have thought that was a rather insular view." Today, however, the message is being reshaped into one that focuses less on where products come from and more on the conditions under which they're made. Progressives who never would have slapped a "Buy American" bumper sticker on their Volvos are joining boycotts of Nike shoes and Disney-licensed toys to protest their manufacture in Asian sweatshops. And while a recent TIME magazine article seemed to suggest that environmentalists are forsaking their liberal label when they worry about world trade treaties that gut local environmental laws, in fact it's becoming an increasingly respectable "liberal" position to back away from the wholesale embrace of free trade. Thus environmental groups and peace groups joined union-led campaigns to block the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and, later, efforts to expand it to South American nations such as Chile. "You see people in the Peace and Justice movement appreciating the idea of closing out your markets to people who don't treat their workers correctly," said Jim Carpenter, executive director of the Wisconsin Fair Trade Campaign, a coalition of union and other groups that mobilizes activism against the current free trade regime. "People have a greater appreciation of using that tool to achieve their goals for economic social justice. "These global trade pacts are giving these countries the same access to our markets as if they were just another state," Carpenter said. "If they're going to have access, they should be subject to the same level of regulation as every state in this union so there's a level playing field. People in the social justice movement are beginning to appreciate that sort of dynamic that they didn't appreciate before."In the 1970s and early '80s, the global economy was in its infancy. Over time, however, pocketbook economics defeated the patriotic argument. Moberly, now an official with UNITE, a union representing textile workers, says the union's two predecessor unions -- the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers and the International Ladies' Garment Workers -- saw their membership erode as falling trade barriers allowed the flow of capital around the world to accelerate. Work flowed offshore and labor costs plummeted. "An outerwear coat made in the U.S. cost two to three times as much as one imported from Hungary," Moberly said. In some product categories, "it's really impossible to go out to find American-made products." "The trade union movement had to go out and look at what we were competing with out there," Moberly said. What the movement was competing with -- wages paid in cents per day instead of dollars per hour, workers with no union rights and minimal safety protections, communities of grinding poverty despite long hours of work -- began to change the message."It became much more of an interest to people to talk about conditions under which the clothes are being manufactured under as opposed to what country they're made in. We moved from an appeal to Buy American to an appeal, much more, to bring the bottom up." In that respect, the unions have found themselves moving closer to where peace and justice activists had been all along. Peace groups who organized against military intervention in Central America for nuclear disarmament "were thinking much more globally," Moberly said. "They saw the nationalistic jingoism of Buy American campaigns and they didn't become a part of it." But as unions focused increasingly on, for instance, workers' rights in Latin America, the two began to find common ground. "I think the peace and justice organizations had a clearer global vision than what many parts of the trade union movement had. When we began doing a more thorough analysis of what was going on offshore, we were able to link with them to continue this work," Moberly said. So for several years at Christmas time, groups devoted to human rights in China and Tibet have organized boycotts of Chinese-made toys and Christmas ornaments, alleging widespread use of prison labor in their manufacture. Micah Zenko, a University of Wisconsin-Madison senior from Green Bay majoring in international relations, says "Buy American" doesn't mean much to him, particularly since in certain categories American-made products are almost impossible to find. More important is "where the workers are empowered to have some decisions, and where the conditions are horrendous," said Zenko, who helped organize the local Chinese "toycott" last Christmas as a member of the Madison chapter of Students for a Free Tibet. And labor, through the AFL-CIO, played a significant role in getting the word out, Zenko said. He credits the labor federation as "really the only people who do any research on the issue." In New York, the National Labor Committee, which did the research that exposed the Latin American sweatshops supplying handbags sold under the Kathie Lee Gifford name, has now turned its sights to China as well. Using anonymous undercover researchers, the committee recently reported it had investigated 21 factories working as subcontractors to major U.S. apparel firms, according to the committee's Kenny Bruno. "We found the majority of workers are women 17 to 25 years old," Bruno said. "They work from 60 to as much as 96 hours a week. They live in dormitories, two to a bed, four to a bunk bed. They're fed rice gruel in some cases. They lead miserable lives. They don't have any rights, they're unaware of labor rights, they're unaware of U.S. corporate codes of conduct." Moreover, as work migrates from state-owned factories in northern China to privately owned ones in southern China's free trade zones, the result is actually a downward spiral in wages and benefits, Bruno said. But the committee -- originally set up in the 1980s by the AFL-CIO, but which now gets much of its funding from other sources, including foundations -- says its goal isn't to shut down Chinese industry. "We're calling for the U.S. companies not to leave China but to help improve conditions that approach indentured servitude," Bruno said. "We don't think the American people want to wear clothes that are made in this way, and if they knew how these clothes were made they'd be very upset."It's a strategy that's far more nuanced and ambitious than the simple "Buy American" approach that starts and ends with looking for the label of origin. "What we're calling for is the right for these workers to organize, right for them to earn a living wage, and we're calling in the U.S. for corporate disclosure," Bruno said. "Corporations [should] have to tell the public at which factories their goods are made, at what wages, under what conditions, and it should be verified by independent monitors -- monitors who are not beholden to the company. "Whether we like it or not, we're up to our necks in this process of globalization. If you can prevent that downward spiral, we're protecting American workers and at the same time we're protecting workers in other countries." Sometimes overseas human rights and domestic union issues dovetail. The AFL-CIO's Food and Allied Service Trades Department has been regularly dogging Wal-Mart over the discount retailer's claims that it seeks to Buy American whenever possible. Last summer, FAST and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1444 helped sponsor a contest at a Franklin Wal-Mart to see who could find the most countries other than the U.S. with products for sale in the store. (The winner, who was awarded $500, found products from 34 other countries.) In promoting the event, FAST and the UFCW stressed the exploitation of foreign workers. But Wal-Mart is an important target for another reason: As a non-union employer that is increasingly muscling into the retail grocery segment through its Sam's Club unit and huge new hypermarkets, Wal-Mart directly threatens existing stores where workers have union representation. On another front, Moberly's union, UNITE, has been targeting universities and school boards in a campaign to limit sources of products ranging from team uniforms to logo-bearing casual wear. At Notre Dame, for instance, Moberly says, a resolution now calls for "anything that has the Fighting Irish logo on it has to be proven to be made in a sweatshop-free environment." A similar campaign focuses on local government procurement officers to ensure that uniforms worn by municipal workers from garbage collectors to police officers doesn't come from overseas sweatshops. At the union's request, Ald. Don Richards is looking at where Milwaukee city-issued uniforms come from. Dan Shansky, AFT official Frank Shansky's son, has organized an ad-hoc Nike boycott among his friends at his school after stumbling across a Nike boycott page on the World Wide Web. Dan, 15, made his own boycott Nike T-shirt and wore it to school for a few days before it ran in the wash; his father gave him a new one for Christmas. Concern about worker exploitation overseas is meeting a distaste for the homogenization of global culture -- where Disney and McDonald's join Coca-Cola in becoming worldwide icons that crowd out indigenous identity -- to put another twist that is virtually the opposite of "Buy American." Just as in the 1980s political leftists bought Nicaraguan coffee to help show solidarity with the Sandinista regime, today a broader segment of the population seeks out goods imported through organizations that are using trade as a one-on-one development tool in the Third World. Capitol Drive Lutheran Church in Milwaukee operates a gift shop year-round selling crafts imported by nonprofit organizations such as the Mennonite church. "They're all made in either co-ops or people's homes," said Eunice Koepke, who coordinates the shop. "There are no factories, no sweatshops." Individual craftspeople are paid immediately and directly for their work, she said, and the store's profits -- it netted $11,000 last year -- go back to mission projects in the Third World, such as a schools, health clinics and disaster relief. Koepke's husband Jerry, one of 40 volunteers who work at the shop, says he's detected a growing number of shoppers who say they support it as an antidote to the mass-produced Third World products proliferating across the retail industry. In Madison, Matt Silvern, runs One World Trading Company, which positions itself as a "socially responsible" importer and developer of ceramics, pottery and other products for gift shops. Silvern says he deals directly with the artisans whose work he sells, and he strives to see they get an above-average wage for their work. In turn, he sells to museum shops and other stores, such as the Nature of Things in Milwaukee and Little Luxuries in Madison. A growing number of customers, he said, have been asking for more information in the store about the company, its products and their makers -- an indicator, Silvern believes, that consumers are making their purchases as much out of ethical concerns as aesthetic ones. Not everyone sees the notion of Buying American as evidence of rabid nationalism. For Dean Muller, a Milwaukee stockbroker who specializes in socially responsible investing and has long been active in progressive causes, it's simply an extension of the small-town, take-care-of-each-other sensibility he grew up with in his native Iowa. "When a pizza place opens up down the street, I support them," said Muller, who lives in Milwaukee's Sherman Park neighborhood. "The way I've always thought about it, if I'm buying something, can I buy it closer to home?" The goal, he said, is "keeping the dollars flowing through this community." But whether consumers want to use their dollars to support their neighbors at home or to prevent exploitation abroad, such sensibilities remain with only a small sliver of society, observes Don Timmerman, a veteran activist with Casa Maria Catholic Workers in Milwaukee. "I don't think people are apathetic to the suffering that's caused by manufacturers that are responsible for pollution of the environment or are paying substandard benefits," Timmerman said. "It's just that they don't know." Then, too, many may not be sure what they can do. And many more may share the ambivalence of Shirley Sullivan, a long-time Milwaukee activist in the women's and environmental movements. Sullivan said she started out pro-NAFTA, figuring that world trade would spread the wealth and help create jobs both here and abroad. Her reservations rose when she learned that the agreement might run roughshod over environmental protections. Even now, though, she admits she isn't entirely comfortable with pat slogans. "I think we do have to buy American rather than just buy a lot of cheap, Chinese products. I think we have to support our own workers," she said. "When you think that they're working for slave wages, or maybe it's even prison labor, then I don't think we should trade with them." At the same time, however, "I realize that people have to work in other countries as well. I tend to agree with President Clinton that you keep the lines open with those countries. We have to work to raise the standard of living for people around the world. We are one world."


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