October 07, 2009

"Buy American: Should we follow that Flag?", by Jane Slaughter, in Labor Notes, Re-posted from May 2009



U.S. workers have lost 3 million manufacturing jobs
in the last six years, and 1.5 million just since the
recession began in December 2007. Manufacturing,
once the bedrock of the labor movement as well as the
economy, looks paler than ever.

So in Michigan and Illinois in the past month, Steelworkers
rallied to “Keep It Made in America.” Michigan
mayors bragged about the home-grown police cars
their cities had purchased, and a local AFL-CIO official
reminded folks of their individual responsibility to buy
the right thing.

“Buy American”—you love it or it makes you queasy.
Some union members see it as the only way to save
jobs; others think it undermines solidarity with workers
in other countries and can morph into ugly jingoism
and racism.

Dana Frank, pro-union historian and author of Buy
American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism,
says, “There’s nothing wrong with a nation regulating
its economy. But if you get obsessed with nationalism,
you’re going to miss who’s your friend and who’s your
enemy at home.
‘Buy American’ isn’t always wrong, it’s just barking up
the wrong tree.”

Frank worries that Buy American campaigns convince
unions to partner with companies that are out to
slit their throats. “If these companies that say Buy
American wanted to help the American economy,” she
says, “they’d go for single-payer health care.”


There’s a reason people look for quicker fixes
like Buy American—even when there’s evidence that
they blow up in our faces.

The labor movement has come a long way from the
crude racism of its 1980s Buy American campaigns.
Some leaders today want to wave the flag in a way that
doesn’t inflame hostilities. Are they succeeding? Let us
hear what’s happening in your community: write to
buyamerican@labornotes.org.

–Jane Slaughter

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