Beyond ‘Buy American’: Sorting Allies and Enemies

Steelworkers in Illinois held a Rally to Restore American Manufacturing to protest the use of pipe from India on a mammoth oil pipeline. But "U.S." steel companies produce steel all around the world today. Photo: Doug May, USW Local 1899.

A union rep discussing the possible strike at AT&T said the work of his members came and went from locations all over the world. The production chain was so extensive that the union couldn’t track it. He then said, sadly, “In this time of high unemployment, the company could be a leader and bring those jobs back here and be patriotic.”

AT&T patriotic? They dropped “American” from their name a long time ago.

A UAW local president explained that buying American cars meant buying cars from the Big 3 automakers, because the transplants shipped their profits overseas, so we should shun even union-made cars of Toyota and Mitsubishi.

Does that mean that if Fiat buys Chrysler, we shouldn’t buy their cars anymore?

On April 7 Steelworkers in Granite City, Illinois, held a Rally to Restore American Manufacturing, to protest the use of pipe from India on a mammoth oil pipeline from Alberta to Illinois. Two thousand workers at U.S. Steel’s Granite City plant, which could make the hot-rolled steel for such pipes, are laid off. The rally was sponsored by the union and the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a partnership between the Steelworkers, U.S. Steel, and Allegheny Technologies.

But U.S. Steel and Allegheny Technologies also produce metals in England, Canada, China, Mexico, Slovakia, Serbia, and Brazil.

This “us or them” approach to jobs is happening everywhere. The rampage of job-killing is creating desperation among workers and their unions. They are being seduced by “Buy American” and steering toward economic nationalism—the doctrine that we will prosper by taking care of the American economy first and exclusively.

But Buy American is a giant distraction. It targets consumers rather than the corporations and governments who’ve made the decisions that are killing our jobs.

When unions side with nationalism they confuse workers about who our allies are, who our enemies are, and what will advance our own interests. Without alternative strategies economic nationalism seems logical, but our history suggests it will take us onto the rocks. Why?


Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when we were first starting to hemorrhage manufacturing jobs and corporations were going global, labor reacted by advocating trade protections and Buy American. Toyota-bashing parties and blaming Mexican workers for stealing our jobs were commonplace.

Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American engineer in Detroit, was beaten to death by a laid-off auto plant supervisor, who thought Chin was Japanese. The killer got probation.

Further back, during the Depression, newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and industry leaders who stood to benefit backed the Buy America Act and formed Made in America Clubs to make it look like a popular movement. In 1938 the AFL’s Union Label Trades Department added American-made to its union-made campaigns.

But the foreigner-bashing spilled over onto immigrants. Many union leaders joined in demanding that jobs go only to American-born workers. Between 1930 and 1935 government raids against Mexican immigrant workers led to the deportation of half a million.



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Today, despite a sea change in organized labor’s views on foreign workers, we hear some disturbing echoes of the 1930s in the enthusiastic embrace of Lou Dobbs by a number of unions as a champion of the middle class, fair trade, and made-in-America. This is despite Dobbs’ obsession with keeping immigrants out.


Buy America campaigns often partner unions with corporations, as in the United Steelworkers’ “Support American Manufacturing” initiative. But steel is a global industry, and sourcing decisions are not made on the basis of patriotism. Unions end up allying with the same companies that are attacking workers on every other front.

Dave Dowling, the USW leader who organized the Granite City rally, says the partnership is tactical. His members have no illusions about U.S. Steel. “Members understand why we do these things,” Dowling said. “They know the company would sell us down the river if it suited their needs. Shouldn’t we be able to talk about the decline of American manufacturing capacity and the loss of jobs without being called protectionist?”


This is the wrong debate, where the alternatives are either corporate-led globalization, with multinationals roaming the world for cheap labor, or protectionist nationalism, with these same multinationals distracting us with a phony show of patriotism to divide us from other workers.

So how should labor frame the discussion? How do we support good jobs without playing workers against each other at home and globally?

Unions gained leverage in the U.S. when we could take wages out of competition by organizing entire industries. In today’s global labor market wages are again in competition, and it’s still our job to equalize wages so that corporations can’t whipsaw us.

Some unions have made first steps. The Steelworkers’ campaign for locals to adopt 3,000 families of striking Mexican workers at the Cananea copper mines brings tangible solidarity to the embattled workers and constructs worker-to-worker relationships as well.

Contrast that to the Teamsters’ campaign against NAFTA rules that allowed Mexican trucks to drive across the border. It played well on the talk shows, many of which made no distinction between unsafe trucks and their drivers, but it did nothing to build ties with Mexican truckers, many of whom work for the same companies as the Teamsters, or to raise the real issue of quality jobs for truckers.

We don’t have to decide betweeen corporate-led globalization and protectionist nationalism, with multinationals using patriotism to divide workers.

In the short run, the Teamsters were successful, but our challenge in a global economy is to organize along such production chains because our power is based on solidarity, not competition.

At the very least, unions can build worker-to-worker ties and give members the tools to critique the economic nationalists like Lou Dobbs.

Finally, a movement for good jobs around the world must allow nations to make comprehensive plans shaped to fit each country’s needs and structured so that workers are not pitted against each other.

In the U.S., at the least, we need a comprehensive and sustainable policy of investment in manufacturing, education, training, national health care, and reconstruction of a social safety net, and we need trade and development policies which reverse the race to the bottom by protecting workers’ rights to organize, strengthening environmental standards, and fostering just and democratic decision-making on economic development.

For workers, neither bailouts nor Buy American will fix our broken system.

Judy Ancel is a labor educator at The University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is active in cross-border solidarity.


TonyCurtis (not verified) | 05/12/09

I just had this debate on another forum and had to drop it because I was told I was "hypocritical" and "ignorant" because I discussed the Japanese car made in America vs the American brand car with the Japanese engine made in Canada. Thank you for logic and reason, and the truth that there is no black and white, just a broad and deep spectrum of gray.

JPA (not verified) | 04/30/09

'Buy American' slogan reflects what America has been doing for the last 15 to 20 years. Only thing the message used to be addressed to other peoples who were supposed to buy American. What will be the shape of this slogan once the world emerges out of the recession? Will the unions say 'Don't sell American - at least to other countries?