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March 17, 2005

Made in America

For the past couple of months, I've been working on an article about how a sporting goods manufacturer is moving their production to China. I've tried to stay really open minded about it. I don't, just in principal, object to offshoring - hell, I've worked in software! - and I'm still developing my conclusions around this issue.

But as a byproduct of my research, I've been paying really close attention to where the stuff I buy is made and trying to select American made goods. You know what? It is really hard to do. REALLY hard. You should try it. No, really, you should. I'm not saying you have to get all hardline and buy only American made goods. What I'm saying is that I dare you to pay attention to where the stuff you're buying already comes from.

For me, it's really driven home the death of US manufacturing. (Okay, I got it when I saw Roger and Me. I'm not a total ninny.) But STILL. Think about the jobs. Think about what's making the US economy go. We're not making stuff that people can use even if we are selling it to them at cut prices out of box stores. Also, what are we doing for a living? We can't all be "knowledge workers."

I can't stop thinking about or start shutting up about this. The thing that bugs me most of all is that I don't know what an educated consumer is supposed to do when they need new underwear.

Posted by pam at March 17, 2005 09:20 AM | TrackBack
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Oh, we aren't all knowledge workers, Pam. Predominantly, we are a service economy. That doesn't mean "knowledge" it means "middle men." One of our largest industries is financial services. People like to argue that these are knowledge workers but they aren't - they are paper and button pushers that work the machinery that keeps our loose-money, credit-bloated Titanic of an economy staggering around the harbor.

I have argued before that we were living on borrowed time and that when the textile tariffs expired we would see yet another blow to US industry. Hell, we have even begun to lose our ability to export food and in the next year we will become a net importer of food.

Apparently, our government is so concerned with exporting democracy to the rest of the world that they have forgotten to listen to their citizens at home. And so they fiddle as our economy crashes and burns...

Posted by: terry on March 17, 2005 11:27 AM

Okay, service worker, knowledge worker, insurance claims adjuster, content provider,nickel stacker... yeah, yeah, I know. Fleshing out the "we can't all be "x" doesn't help me figure out what to DO as a consumer. Get a good seat for the circus? Throw away what remaining principals I have and buy, baby, buy? Start weaving my own fibers out of hemp I've grown in my community garden whle plastering my 85 Toyota with Green Party stickers?

Seriously, the thing that's eating me is that I don't know what to DO. Maybe I should reclassify this post under neuroses.

Posted by: pam on March 17, 2005 03:27 PM

The first "Buy American" campaigns, after World War I, were led by people who also wanted to keep all non-white races out of America. (I'm not an adept enough knowledge-worker to paste in a link, I'm just an academic, but I can tell you that Dana Kennedy has written about this, I think.) Anyway, that should remind us to try to think about "Buy Union" instead of "Buy American". Or, better, to use our clout as consumers to try to get a decent international minimum wage as a human right. I know, I know, that will take forever and it doesn't help you buy underwear right now.

But still, I've been thinking lately that there may be an upside to multinationals. Naomi Klein points this out at the end of No Logo. When good consumer pressure groups get McDonalds or Nike to treat the environment & workers better, those giant multinationals tend to achieve more drastic progressive changes than years of government declarations have managed to make. We have some leverage here, you know, because the giant corps are sensitive to PR. Maybe I'm just thinking this because I have a weird part-time job working for British Petroleum right now (I swear, I;m just researching urban history for them, really), and I need to justify to myself how I can accept BP's money, so I need to find something decent about giant global monstrous corporations.

I'm a poor grad student. I shop at H&M. I realize that in order for me to buy that nifty $7 t-shirt that I don't really need, some one else in some other country has probably worked for slave wages, making this t-shirt. But what's my other option? Pay $40 for a t-shirt at some shmancy store, when their shirt-makers may be just as underpaid as the H&M subcontractors? Not buy any t-shirt at all, so then no one gets paid?

Pam, what you're talking about is what academics call an hour-glass class structure. In many American cities, you either work in an office doing well-paid white-collar service work, or you clean that office at night, doing underpaid blue/pink-collar service work. There's no real middle. There's executives at the top, and there's housecleaners, gardeners, nannies, waiters, janitors at the bottom. That's the economy of many US cities. And we depend on each other: the average office-worker relies on restaurant-workers and office-cleaners and car-mechanics, etc, couldn't function without that low-wage labor that causes our cities to be so stratified. The middle used to be decently-paid union jobs, as well as small owner-run stores, but globalization and union stagnation have lost some of that -- and they weren't ever ideal anyway, but this post is already too long. I have no easy solution.

Posted by: elaine on March 17, 2005 03:49 PM

Buy UNION. That's it. Duh. Thank you, Elaine. That helps a lot. See, the thing is that I didn't think that the folks I talked for my article were evil at ALL. They sounded committed to good conditions for their workers and to sound environmental policies and to advocacy related to the outdoors (it's a sporting goods thing I'm working on).

I didn't want to discount them ONLY because they'd moved to China. I went fishing on the web and it turns out that the AFL-CIO has a tool on their site that allows you to search for union manufactured goods. I found two possiblities for my personal shopping needs - and then, whammo, following that trail let me to learn that one of them distributed through Wal-Mart.

Welcome to the shopping Matrix. I did sign up for a CSA this morning. That's something.

Posted by: pam on March 18, 2005 07:33 AM

So does this mean that you will join a union, as well? And if yes, will you post on how abiding by the union's bylaws and regulations has impacted your work? And if no, why? Is there no union that represents what you do? Thanks!

Posted by: terry on March 18, 2005 12:13 PM

I have considered joining a union in the past because as a freelancer, it's been a trial to get health benefits. I think I qualify for the CWA (Communications Workers of America) or the NWU (National Writers Union). Give me a little time to look in to it, I'll get back to you.

Some time back I worked for a company during the time the warehouse tried to go Union. The company? Pissed off. The warehouse workers? Wanting better conditions. The upshot? The union vote failed but the workers I talked to insisted that it was fear of losing their jobs that made some of the workers vote no. The truth? I can't really say.

Understand that I'm trying to get my brain around American made/offshore made issue and that's what inspired my post in the first place. SHOULD I make the effort to by union made or locally made goods? What do YOU do when you need to buy pants?

Posted by: pam on March 18, 2005 02:02 PM

I am in a union. I used to belong to the San Francisco teacher's union (back when I taught middle school), and now that I teach college kids, I belong to the Graduate Employees "Union" (GESO), which is allied with the actual unions of janitors & secretaries on this campus. It's under the umbrella of Service Employees Internation, the most growing sector of union people in America. I'm about to graduate and take a job as a professor in a CalState school, where I will belong to yet another union.

There's a loooong debate over whether my current union, GESO, is an actual union (there's a legal battle & an organizing-drive battle & a whole convoluted story - if you really want to know, go to newhavenadvocate.com and look up GESO and that may tell you a little). There's lots wrong with my union. In fact, I'm often accused of a lack of "solidarity" because I tend to like to debate policies, while my particular union has quite weird Stalinist tendencies. Here's an actual conversation that took place three years ago.
Me: I'd like to see our union be democratic.
They: That's such a vague word, democracy, what does it really mean?
Me: Contested elections, to start with. When more than one person runs for any union position, that is when we'll actually get to vote for anything meaningful, and that is what I call democracy. It's even better if the people we vote for are actually the people who have power in the union.
They: That's so vague...

I'm not at all happy with this. And I could go on. GESO's structure is to have one volunteer "organize" five or six classmates, meeting with them over coffee, ideally once a week with each one, in one-on-one meetings to berate us into toeing the party line. It's quite irritating. Still, they got me a living wage. Before GESO began organizing, grad students here earned $9,000 a year. Now we get $18,000 a year, minimum. GESO has also asked for, and received, smaller class sizes, better teacher-training, health care for all grad students, an institutional emphasis on diversity, more research funding, and a grudging bit of respect from the administration. They're far from perfect. Neither of the unions I've ever been in were perfect. Still, I appreciate the protection they offer and I don't know of anything better. Do you?

I didn't mean to start on a pro-union rant. But, see, I joined GESO when my friend faced a sudden paycut in the middle of the semester, with no possible recourse. She couldn't pay her rent until the union called a rally and the deans relented & restored her pay. The deans used to do this all the time, but since the union has made a fuss, the deans have finally stopped suddenly cutting our pay in the middle of semesters. It's actually a great accomplishment.

Posted by: elaine on March 18, 2005 02:16 PM

First, what do I do when I buy pants?

Well, frankly, I'm fat and have limited choices in where I can buy clothes - as I have lost 40 pounds since last July, this is changing but still I am well into double digit sizes. The jeans that I am wearing now from Lane Bryant are made in Mexico. While not the US, better than China. I do look to see where the clothes are made when I contemplate my purchase but like you and Elaine am restricted by what's on offer.

I suppose I could drag out my sewing machine and make my own clothes but I can't guarantee that the cloth, thread and findings are made in the USA either. In fact, I can tell you from personal experience that a lot of it comes from China.

I think we should all make the effort to buy locally made items whenever possible. If there is a union involved in the production and/or distribution of the goods that's a plus. Unfortunately, I don't think it is possible without a lot of research up front to ensure that everything you buy was at least assembled in the US. Shopping has now taken on a new dimension for me. Thinking about this should keep the impulse buys down to a minimum.

Posted by: terry on March 18, 2005 06:51 PM

There's http://www.nosweatapparel.com
And there must be other, buy-union or buy-sweatshop-free-clothes kinda sites out there.

But I have to admit that I haven't actually bought much from No Sweat.

I tend to buy organic food not because it's the right thing to do for the environment and the agribusiness workers, but actually because it tastes better to me. Also, when I learned that girls start menstruating around age 6 or 7 probably because of the hormones added to milk, I got grossed out about what I'm putting in my body, and switched to organic milk. Which is tastier. So for selfish reasons, I pay a little extra for organic food. I haven't yet found similar selfish reasons to make me always buy union, despite my rants (see above). Do any of you have any great possibilities?

I guess there's also the Salvation Army, where you're kinda supporting a good cause -- and that works for my budget. Actually, I get most of my clothes from the Ladies' Brunch & Clothing Swap that I hold with other cheap friends. But that's not supporting any garment workers, anywhere.

Posted by: elaine on March 19, 2005 07:30 AM

I draw the line at second hand shoes and underwear. I don't object to second hand shoes in principal but unless they've been broken in by your alter-ego, they'll never be right.

They're aren't as many "No Sweat" labels as you'd think. You can get jeans, polo shirts, work clothes , socks... then things really start to narrow down. It's nigh impossible to find an sports bra, for example. It does look like Bali makes their underwear at a union shop in Mexico.

When you take your brain shopping with you, you so often leave the store empty handed. Maybe TV isn't the opiate of the masses anymore. Maybe it's shopping.

Posted by: pam on March 19, 2005 07:43 AM
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