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New Book Explains —
The Untold Story
(and Failure) of
‘Buy American’ Campaigns

Classic "Buy American" Gary Huck cartoon from 1985 ...
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.
Buy American,
The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism
Dana Frank.
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.


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 trade.

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.


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 auto imports.

"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 low."

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.


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 securities investments."

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 "fighting communism."

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.


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 labor-management cooperation.

"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 it."

— Peter Gilmore

UE News - 12/00

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