The rally call of “Buy American” isn’t new, but the proposition looks very different in 2017 than it did in the 1970s. Back then, there were almost 20 million workers in the U.S. making goods in factories across the country (today, it’s 12.3 million). These workers made clothes, baseballs, toys, blue jeans, electronics and a host of goods you could find in your neighborhood store. If you want some Brach’s candy in 2017, it will come from their factory in Mexico.
That’s one way the conversation today is different. Asking consumers to “Buy American” makes no sense unless there are things to buy. Instead, in 2017 we have to talk about building it here so we can buy it here.
The last 30 years have taught us a few things about the importance of a strong manufacturing base in the United States. Making products here — from consumer goods to heavy equipment — builds stronger communities through jobs that multiply: Each new full-time job created in manufacturing leads to 3.4 full-time jobs in related non-manufacturing industries (Source: Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, September 2016). These factories also produce goods that are safer for our families and the workers who make the products. From lead in toys to sweatshop conditions, the real cost of purchasing cheap imported goods is often hidden.
Bringing back manufacturing jobs won’t be easy, but the steep price of not taking this on will be paid by generations to come. Much of our fight will rest on changing government policies — whether it’s product labeling, procurement of goods and services or trade agreements. Far too often, these laws and rules favor the interests of the few who profit over the benefits to the many. Why else would our trade negotiators resist stronger labor and environmental laws abroad? Our country’s agenda should be to lift everyone, not make it easier to race to the bottom.
And as we demand that manufacturing jobs be created here, we have to remain mindful that not all jobs are equal. Our goal should be well-paying and safe jobs that can sustain families. Anything else is just creating a new kind of casualty of trade agreements.
In the meantime, we shop. In 2016, it’s estimated Americans spent over $5 trillion on retail sales. That’s almost a quarter of all the sales in the world. Each purchase is a choice. We look at products for good value, but measuring that value is more than just looking at the sticker price. Consider these four categories:
- Imported, made by nonunion labor: This category represents the vast majority of consumer goods that are imported into the United States. They often have a cheap sales sticker, but these products come with a price. What were the safety standards that went into the raw materials in the product? Were the workers who made it exploited? And how did the shipment of the goods across oceans contribute to the carbon footprint of the product? What is the quality of the product?
- Imported, made by union labor: This is a small category and most consumers probably have no idea if an imported product was made by a worker with collective bargaining rights. Solidarity is global. In fact, the UAW vehicle guide includes cars made by our union brothers and sisters who are part of UNIFOR in Canada. But not all unions are free and independent. The global union label is meaningful only if those workers have true democratic unions.
- Made in America by nonunion labor: Kudos for building it here and creating jobs in our communities. But that shouldn’t give an employer a pass if they are not respecting worker and community rights. What is their workplace safety record? Do they respect organizing laws? Are the jobs they create real or mostly through temporary agencies? Are they a “good neighbor” in their community?
- Made in America by union labor: Though union density in the private sector is 6.4 percent, labor unions are among the most ardent advocates for keeping jobs in the U.S. Through collective bargaining, workers have a voice in their working conditions and are mindful of safety on the job. Collective bargaining lifts wages not only for the workers covered by the contract, but also those in the area and industry. Some of the most enduring and iconic manufacturers in this country are union and have been for decades: Louisville Slugger, Fiestaware, Jim Beam, Ghirardelli chocolates, Callaway golf balls, General Motors, Ford and FCA USA, to name a few. And union members are generous champions of the communities they live in, often involved or leading a host of service projects.
This conversation is an important one that we will be having this year in union halls and across the dinner table. Standing together, we can build an economy that lifts us all. We can reward good employers with our purchasing power while investing in a future for the next generation. Let’s have 2017 be the year that we get this right: Build it here, so we can buy it here!
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