New Book Explains —
The Untold Story
(and Failure) of
‘Buy American’ Campaigns
|Cartoon makes history. In her study of ‘Buy American’
campaigns, historian Dana Frank says this classic Gary Huck cartoon from 1985
captured the contradiction between the approach taken by many unions to
runaway jobs and the corporations’ response.
The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism
Published by Beacon Press, 1999
Paperback / 0-8070-4711-2 /
List Price $17.50
Buy American? UE was one union that steered clear of the
"Buy American" hoopla of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s not that UE
wasn’t concerned about the loss of jobs — no union has fought harder
against plant closings or to retain work. The "Buy American"
approach ignored the reality that "American" corporations were
busily shipping production overseas.
To UE, the thing smelled like an exercise in labor-management
cooperation that promised to cover big business’ global "behind",
without doing much of anything to halt the loss of jobs. As in taking on any
grievance, UE kept the attention directed at the bosses’ policies and fought
like the dickens for the membership.
Also troublesome to UE, "Buy American" campaigns
pointed the finger of blame at foreign workers who, like everyone else, were
just trying to earn a living. UE members looked for ways of creating alliances
with workers and unions abroad, who were often fighting the same companies.
That’s why UE members are "the heroes" of a new
book which gives "Buy American" campaigns a thorough examination: Buy
American, the Untold Story of Economic Nationalism by Dana Frank. The
author, an historian and associate professor of American Studies at the
University of California at Santa Cruz, doesn’t actually use the word
"heroes" in her book — that’s what she told this reviewer in a
conversation earlier this year. But it’s clear from the pages of Buy
American that she has enormous respect for the union and its policies.
But that’s not the only reason to sit down and read this
well-written and lively book. It’s an important contribution to our
understanding of trade policy — and as we learned to our cost with NAFTA and
GATT, trade matters.
FROM THE BEGINNING
Frank starts her story, appropriately, at the beginning, with
the tea-dumping protests against English control of American trade that
launched the first "Buy American" campaign. Frank makes it clear
that during the Revolutionary era, plantation owners and merchants didn’t
always have the same goals as sailors, slaves or the women whose homespun
replaced British cloth. Wealthy merchants like John Hancock cleverly exploited
the boycott of British goods, while working people engaged in (sometimes)
orderly riots to maintain informal controls on prices.
The Revolution began with a dispute over trade restrictions
and ended with a Constitution that asserted a new government’s control over
Frank points out that generations of school kids have squirmed
or slept through history class discussions on tariffs (taxes on imported
goods, remember). But tariffs, she reminds us, separated the Republicans from
the Democrats, and represented the most contentious political issue other than
slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction. Trust us — Frank makes tariffs a lot
more interesting than Miss Beamish did in sixth grade. Among other points
worth considering, the tariff debate provided a handy smokescreen to hide the
intensifying conflict between robber barons and workers.
DEAL WITH THE DEVIL
Frank brilliantly summarizes the post-World War II deal
between labor officials, government and big business that led to the fateful
1949 split in the ranks of the CIO. "With the postwar compact the unions
hitched their wagon to the star of U.S. corporate expansion overseas,"
Frank writes — a development that had some surprising results. In alignment
with the foreign policy objectives of big business, the AFL-CIO officially
backed free trade. The president of the United Steelworkers testified before
Congress in favor of trade liberalization. The IBEW’s publication hailed
"Asleep at the wheel of the AFL-CIO, [President] George
Meany didn’t see that in 1961 all the elements of the crisis to come had
settled into place," Frank says. "U.S. corporations were now
thoroughly multinational, having planted their feet firmly abroad. The nation’s
military-centered economy sapped domestic economic development more thoroughly
every year. Military intervention, meanwhile, kept Third World wages
In the 1970s all hell broke loose. "Suddenly, and
dramatically, the crisis hit," Frank observes. "Millions of the
stable, well-paid union jobs in which so many American working people had
believed evaporated overnight."
The garment industry, in particular, was devastated. The
International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), lobbied for protectionist
legislation and combined its traditional "Buy Union" promotion with
a "Buy American" of significant proportions. Television ads exhorted
shoppers to "look for the union label." But as Frank explains, all
was not as it appeared.
SUBSIDIZED BY THE BOSSES
Since the 1920s, "ILGWU contracts specified that if a
unionized manufacturer subcontracted any of its production to a nonunion shop,
the manufacturer would have to pay ‘liquidated damages’ to the union, at a
rate prorated to the sales price of nonunion goods." By the 1970s,
manufacturers willingly accepted payments to the union as a cost of doing
business — as they moved production offshore. "U.S. garment
manufacturers operating overseas thus footed the bill for the TV ads’
earnest plea that American shoppers eschew imports," Frank says.
As the union continued to shrink, payments from bosses almost
equaled dues income; "both paled next to its income from real estate and
Much of the shift to imports and off-shore production was
promoted by the U.S. government, through tax codes, as part of its Cold War
foreign policy. The ILGWU’s lockstep support of that foreign policy left it
unable to protest. The ILGWU might not like to see a U.S. company close a
plant here and resume production in El Salvador — but it backed U.S.
connivance with Salvadoran repression of unions there in the name of
The anti-Japanese bias in ILGWU appealed to bigotry in
contradiction to unionism’s solidarity. The scapegoating of Asians for
unemployment reached disturbing proportions as mass layoffs slammed the auto
industry, and a horrific low point with the murder of an American of Chinese
ancestry in Detroit in 1982.
ON THE COMPANY’S TEAM
UAW members reacted with understandable anger. Meanwhile,
Frank argues, "The UAW leadership, faced
with a crisis for which it was in no way prepared, reacted
with everything but militancy, setting the context for Buy Americanism, it
turns out, as much by omission as by commission."
From "Buy American" to givebacks: UAW agreed to
bailout Chrysler in 1979, followed by major concessions to General Motors and
Ford. Other companies lined up, to demand givebacks from the UAW and other
unions. "The UAW leadership agreed to the auto companies’ demands with
stunning alacrity," says Frank. "At first, their main response was
merely to say yes and answer the next phone call. By 1981, though, the union’s
top leaders had recovered enough to launch a congressional initiative
mandating domestic content in automobiles, effecting an about-face from free
tradism to protectionism ten years after the AFL-CIO’s." Concessions
were followed by jointness: the UAW officially endorsed the team concept.
"One lone voice in the trade union crowd, however, sang a
completely different tune," Frank says. That was UE, which "remained
outside the AFL-CIO’s Cold War consensus." Frank quotes a 1990 UE
resolution that questioned the "Buy American" approach; she also
quotes UE Political Action Dir. Chris Townsend, who terms Buy American
campaigns as a "foolish diversion" that places workers in the
dangerous position of promoting employers. And Frank notes how UE rejects
"From the UE’s viewpoint, the real problem was
corporate restructuring, capital flight and the relentless drive for
profits," Frank writes. She points out that as early as the 1960s, as
electrical manufacturing employment began to shrink, UE called for a 35-hour
week, controls on capital flight and an end to federal tax laws that subsidize
U.S. corporate production overseas. "For the ‘Buy American’ slogan,
the UE substituted: ‘Foreign Competition: Made in the U.S.A.’" (The
title of a 1970s UE pamphlet.)
The choice, Frank maintains, is not between limited free trade
(based on "economic laws" which mysteriously always favor big
business) or protectionism. Alternatives can be found in transnational
solidarity and economic democracy.
She again singles UE out for praise, citing the union’s
cross-border work with Mexico’s Authentic Labor Front (FAT), and favorably
looks at the United Mine Workers’ international solidarity work.
Not surprisingly, Frank sees the fight against NAFTA as a
turning point; she also sees positive results from the mid-1990s change in the
AFL-CIO’s top leadership.
The historian recommends transnational solidarity, like UE’s
alliance with the FAT; international labor standards in trade agreements; a
fight against racism; controls on capital mobility; "and most
fundamentally, we need to talk more about economic democracy. Whose economic
nation is this, anyway? What kind of nation do we want to construct — and
for whom?" Frank asks. "We need to celebrate the Buy American
movement’s basic democratic ideal but look to alternative modes to achieve
— Peter Gilmore
UE News - 12/00