The rally call of “Buy American” isn’t new, but it looks very different in 2017 than it did in the 1970s. Back then, there were almost 20 million workers punching in at factories across the country (today, it’s just 12.5 million). These workers made clothes, baseballs, toys, blue jeans, electronics and a host of goods you could find on the shelves of your neighborhood store. If you want some Brach’s candy in 2017, it’ll come from their factory in Mexico because they’ve closed their Chicago plant.
Asking our neighbors to “Buy American” doesn’t make sense unless there are things to buy. In 2017 we must talk about building it here, so we can buy it here.
The last 30 years have taught us a few things about the importance of a strong manufacturing base in the United States. Making products here – from consumer goods to heavy equipment – builds stronger communities. Good manufacturing jobs support other jobs: each new full-time job created in manufacturing leads to 3.4 full-time jobs in nonmanufacturing industries. Our factories manufacture goods that are safer for our families and the workers who make the products. From lead in toys to sweatshop conditions, the real cost of purchasing cheap imported goods is often hidden.
Bringing back good manufacturing jobs won’t be easy, but the steep price of not taking this on will be paid by generations to come. Much of our fight will rest on changing government policies – whether it’s product labeling, government procurement of goods and services, education and training or trade agreements. Far too often, these laws and rules favor the interests of the few who profit over the benefits to the many. Why else would our trade negotiators resist stronger labor and environmental laws abroad? Our country’s trade agenda should be to lift everyone, not create a race to bottom to lower wages and benefits for workers and lax regulation. And as we demand that manufacturing jobs be created here, we must remain mindful that not all jobs are equal. Our goal should be well-paying and safe jobs that can sustain families. Anything else is just creating a new kind of casualty of trade agreements.
In the meantime, we shop. In 2016, Americans spent over $5 trillion buying stuff online or at stores. Each purchase we make is a choice that impacts our families and our communities. We look at products for good value, but measuring that value is so much more than just the sticker price. How long will the product last? Is it well built? Is it made from raw materials that are safe for your family? How were the workers who made it treated? What did it cost to our environment to ship the product across oceans? Did the plant that built it pollute the air or water? Did building it create jobs in our community? These are all legitimate questions about the hidden cost of the endless stream of imported goods showing up online and at brick and mortar retailers.
It’s time to have this conversation in real terms – not wave the flag and then claim credit for creation of a handful of jobs. To move our country forward, we need to look at what is has happened to manufacturing at its roots. And we need to couple that with a call to action of what we can do as consumers each day when we make product choices with our wallets and as citizens when we vote or call our elected representatives. We can build strong communities and a future that we’re proud to give to the next generation.