The Slippery Slope of “Buy American” Campaigns

Chris Brooks

U.S. history has seen at least three waves of “Buy American” fervor. Chris Brooks interviews Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, about the history and impact of these campaigns. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

This article was first posted by Labor Notes.

Backed by a huge banner reading Buy American — Hire American,” President Trump declared in March that his administration would make the U.S. the car capital of the world” again.

For decades, I have raised the alarm over unfair foreign trade practices that have robbed communities of their wealth and robbed our people of their ability to provide for their families,” Trump said. They’ve stolen our jobs, they’ve stolen our companies, and our politicians sat back and watched, hopeless. Not anymore.”

Who is they”? Based on the president’s previous comments, two safe guesses are Mexico and China. Since the inauguration he has been pushing to restrict trade and immigration. Meanwhile Auto Workers (UAW) President Dennis Williams has announced that his union will launch a new Buy American” campaign.

U.S. history has seen at least three waves of Buy American” fervor. Chris Brooks interviewed Dana Frank, history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism, about the history and impact of these campaigns.

Labor Notes: The idea behind Buy American” campaigns sounds good to many people. What do you think of this idea?

Dana Frank: Buy American” campaigns operate on the assumption that if you buy a product made in the United States, then the company making the profit off that sale is going to reinvest in good union jobs in the United States — but that is very rarely the case. The companies didn’t agree to that partnership. They have instead used those profits to lobby for free-trade agreements that grease the skids for them to go overseas.

People who might think they can separate out some sort of progressive version of Buy American” will ultimately be unable to escape it sliding into Hire American” or America First,” and the notion that the United States shouldn’t be concerned with the struggles of working people in other countries.

Trump’s formulation goes from Buy American” to Hire American,” which very clearly calls for discrimination against immigrants, including authorized immigrants. He’s fanning the flames of racism here. There’s a reason why Trump and probably Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller put that right up top in his inaugural. They know what they are doing. They want to split native-born working people away from immigrant workers.

I find it tragic that the U.S. labor movement would follow Trump into his trap. It’s only a month later and already some labor leaders are saying, Yes, let’s build the Keystone XL pipeline using union products made in the United States.” And then of course Trump exempted the Keystone pipeline from his own Buy American” pledge.

Elite support for Buy American” campaigns has almost always contained that kind of hypocrisy. Trump isn’t himself buying American. But he or his advisors are smart. They are using the Buy American, Hire American” call to drive a wedge between American working people and working people in the rest of the world — and a lot of people are falling for it.

This isn’t the first time that a union has fallen for a Buy American” campaign. Can you talk about another recent example?

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 80s.

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 12 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.

What was the impact of the previous attempt at Buy American” by the Auto Workers? Even on its own terms, was it successful?

Buy American” campaigns generally don’t work. Like any consumer campaign, there is a reason why people buy a product in the first place. Especially when you get to big-ticket items like a car, the question is: Is that extra $5,000 that you might spend worth it to buy a car that doesn’t fit your requirements or preferences?

I don’t want to insult American-made cars here, but there are many reasons why people might want to buy a car made in another country. Even the union label only worked historically on things that people bought for very little money and that they bought in front of other working people, like cigars.

So the UAW is really asking for an enormous consumer sacrifice in the name of Buying American.” When that is the line in the sand, then other workers, even your union co-workers, can become your supposed enemy if they don’t buy American, as well as working people in other countries — as opposed to corporations and racist politicians.

In today’s global economy, it seems like it would be impossible to buy any item that is made in just one country.

That train left the station long ago. Products are made in several countries because U.S.-based corporations have fled overseas looking for cheap labor and lower environmental regulations. They manufacture pieces in three different countries and then assemble them together in the United States, so even if you wanted to buy that pure American product, in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t exist.

And there is an even earlier history of Buy American” campaigns?

These campaigns go all the way back to the American Revolution, when people were rejecting British products, like clothing made in Britain. George Washington wore what was called homespun,” cloth made in the colonies, as a protest against the British.

Even in that period you can see some of the problems with Buy American” starting to appear. Washington had his slaves make his homespun. So just because the clothing was made in what was becoming the United States, that doesn’t mean that it was made with good working conditions. In fact, it was as terrible as you can get.

It was common for even leading revolutionary figures and famous Founding Fathers like John Hancock to proclaim that the public should buy things made in the colonies — all while importing things behind the scenes and profiting from it. That is a trend that also continues through today. Many Trump products are made outside the United States.

And then the next big Buy American” wave was in the 1930s during the Great Depression?

That’s right. It was launched by William Randolph Hearst, a famous media magnate who owned 27 newspapers. In 1932 and 1933, Hearst called on the American people to Buy American” and Hire American” under the banner of putting America First.”

Hearst’s campaign was very explicitly anti-immigrant, specifically anti-Japanese. He claimed that the U.S. faced a so-called Yellow Peril,” which allegedly included both Japanese people and products made in Japan.

But there were only a few hundred thousand people of Japanese descent living in the United States at the time, in comparison with millions of Italians or Greeks or Germans. Those are all immigrants, but the campaign specifically blamed Japan and Japanese immigrants for the deep crisis facing the U.S. economy. Foreigner-bashing became part of the Buy American” package.

Hearst’s racism and the decades of anti-Asian attitudes that it fed had serious consequences. Ten years later, over 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent, two-thirds of them citizens, lost their businesses, their homes, and were locked away in internment camps in the name of combating the Yellow Peril.”

Trump is being presented as the other side of the trade debate to Clinton and the Democrats, but neither candidate or party was offering a position that would really benefit working people.

Hillary Clinton was not offering a critique of free-trade politics, and Trump was. That’s part of what makes the Trump campaign so dangerous. But if you look at his cabinet and his policies, he is actually driving working and living standards down within the U.S.

You see that most obviously with health care, but also with workplace protections on health and safety. He nominated Andrew Puzder for Secretary of Labor — a corporate CEO who doesn’t believe in labor-law enforcement or the right of working people to form unions. Trump has repeatedly shown his hand, but the mainstream media has done a poor job of exposing his history of being a union buster and exploiting workers all over the world.

Many labor unions run Buy American” campaigns as part of a push for the government to procure domestic or local goods and services. What are your thoughts on this strategy?

We need a progressive trade policy that includes using U.S. funds to support good union jobs in this country. That can include government procurement laws.

But Trump isn’t going after other policies that undermine U.S. exports to other countries or that attack labor rights. He’s just using this one element in a very hypocritical way to pretend he’s working in the interests of working people in the U.S.

And there’s a big difference between government spending policies — which are tied into complex global trade agreements that are designed, otherwise, to undermine labor rights and environmental protections — and campaigns that target consumers and all their shopping choices. Once you call it Buy American,” you’re calling for a whole lot more than just trade policies and economic planning.

Trump has recently signed a Buy American/​Hire American” executive order that targets H-1B visas. What is your take on this order, and what will its likely impact be?

You can see Trump here playing the anti-immigrant card, trying to turn working people in the U.S. against immigrants so we won’t point the finger at plutocrats like Trump and his cabinet. The nationalism of his slogans plays right into this as he tries to split the U.S. working class.

H-1B visas are, indeed, used by corporations to drive down wages and working conditions for elite technical workers in the U.S. But restricting those visas largely won’t help working-class people, since most H-1B visas are used for jobs with highly specialized education and skills that most working people don’t have. Use of those visas by corporations does drive down wages and working conditions for middle-class people, though — which in turn exerts downward pressure on working people in general.

It seems like Buy American” is the kind of campaign that unions land on when they don’t have any other concrete ideas for how to reform trade policies.

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.

Chris Brooks is a labor journalist and organizer. He currently works as the field director at the NewsGuild of New York.

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