labor day essay: buy american!
It’s labor day, the traditional start of the fall election cycle. While most of Santa Barbara’s progressive political community looks at today’s holiday as the two-months-to-go mark for the November midterm election, I’m thinking about the state of the nation’s unions. Despite many positive developments and an increasing commitment to new organizing, it would be foolhardy to argue that workers are in anything but a tough situation in 21st century America. The bulk of new and innovative organizing will doubtless be centered in the growing service sector. However, there are still millions of industrial and manufacturing jobs out there to be organized.
Those jobs are under constant threat from the forces we generally refer to as globalization. Millions of jobs have been scrapped throughout the country, not only in the so-called Rust Belt of the Midwest, but also here in California, throughout the South and Northeast, the cradle of American industry. This is a crisis not only for workers and their families who are thrown to the market wolves, but also for the nation as a whole. On this labor day, we should reflect on how important it is to make things in America.
There are many people and organizations in a community like Santa Barbara who are part of the growing movement toward organic, sustainable and locally-grown food. That’s a good thing. From the perspective of public health as well as ecological sanity, buying locally, when possible, is an important principle. Getting people to make a connection between their favorite produce and our dependence on fossil fuels is an important lesson. We shouldn’t stop at food, however. We are driving cars made from metal forged in China, minerals mined in Africa and assembled in pieces from Korea, Mexico and Japan. The same is true of our ipods, cell phones, computers and other hallmarks of the “new” “clean” economy. In fact, they are very, very dirty products.
Basing our economy on debt-fueled consumption, real estate, and a low-wage service sector invites a massive crash. It won’t be felt equally throughout American society, but where it is felt, it will be disastrous. In many respects, the consistent and horrific decline of our urban centers is a harbinger of a deiundustrialized America. Communities like Detroit, Baltimore, Chicago and Newark have been destroyed by the loss of manufacturing jobs. When this happens in the context of racialized patterns of opportunity, the results are easy to see.
The art of balancing trade policies which aid the development of poor countries while supporting a domestic industrial base is a difficult one- but it will never be achieved so long as our policy makers, and consumers, fail to see the importance of a domestic manufacturing base. Consumer preferences alone aren’t going to solve the problem, but they can go a long way. Consider again the case of organic produce.
Wal-Mart, a company that got its start stocking made-in-the-USA products and now leads the retail industry in plunder and devastation, has announced plans to step up its marketing of organic food. While this is a mixed blessing for organic food advocates, it demonstrates that rising demand has effected the behavior of a major U.S. corporation. It would be great if, in addition to shopping for local squash, progressive shoppers would also buy cars, electronics and washing-machines made in the United States.
Of course, organic buying also shows the limitations of consumer-based social action. Organic farms are not generally better than their pesticide-using counterparts when it comes to labor standards. In fact, many workers trade exposure to pesticides for increasingly intensive labor. There are attempts underway to find ways of labeling food as worker-friendly. Of course, as with anything from toasters to tomatoes, there is no better label than the union label.
Happy labor day!