August 27, 1999

Is Your American Flag Made In America? Does It Matter?

New book looks at the role of "Buy American" campaigns, from the Boston Tea party to NAFTA


SANTA CRUZ -- American flags will fly over many a Labor Day parade next month. Ironically, many of those flags waving proudly in honor of America's Workforce were manufactured, at least in part, in other countries.

That news would likely distress a majority of Americans--about 84 percent, based on the results of a recent Gallup poll--but should it?

Since as early as the 1930s, Americans have been told that buying American-made products will help protect the jobs of American workers. We've been urged on through bumper stickers, slogans, and commercials: "Bring it home to the U.S.A.,"

"Be American, Buy American," and "Hungry? Eat Your Foreign Car," are a few examples of the ideas expressed over the decades.

But some would say such "Buy American" campaigns are not only ineffective, but can often be divisive, hypocritical, and even racist. Among them is Dana Frank, a professor of American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Frank is the author of Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism, released July 4 by Beacon Press. The book gives an engaging and insightful look at the history, current state, and future of Buy American campaigns, beginning with the Boston Tea Party and traveling up to the modern economic world that has produced such phenomena as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Frank examines the role of labor unions, issues of racism and social justice, and grassroots ideas of the economy.

"The problem with the Buy American approach is that it advances nationalist solutions to global problems," Frank wrote in a recent article for the Washington Post. "In a world of NAFTA and GATT, where free traders are rapidly rewriting the rules of global economic affairs, Buy American misses the boat. The Buy American approach not only blinds us to those deeper workings of economic globalization, but plays into the hands of certain corporations that wave the flag ostentatiously, then flee overseas to play the same game with Mexicans, Canadians or Chinese."

Take Wal-Mart, for example. The chain promotes the Buy American sentiment with bold signs displayed at its U.S. stores. But, not only does Wal-Mart have chains in Canada and Mexico as well, it goes so far as to promote "Buy Canadian" and "Buy Mexican" campaigns in those chains.

Wal-Mart isn't alone in its cynical manipulation of public sentiment. Frank observes that some of the staunchest advocates of Buy American campaigns are transnational corporations.

The reality is that, in this global economy, it's difficult to find products made completely on U.S. soil. But rather than work with that reality, Buy American campaigns deny it and characterize laborers in other countries as the enemy. "The GM worker in the U.S. and the GM worker in China have the same interests," Frank points out. "They both work for the same company, but Buy American campaigns effectively keep these forces divided."

Racism is a subtext to much of the Buy American movement. In many cases it is not just subtext, it's overt and antagonistic. Frank says that this was first evident in Buy American campaigns emerging in the early part of this century. The first major Buy American campaign of the 20th century was instigated during the Great Depression by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (who, Frank reveals, imported his newsprint from Canada). The campaign caught on like wildfire, creating widespread animosity toward Asians.

"Whether it was workers overseas or immigrants laboring in the U.S., Hearst characterized their activity as a 'menace' to the American people," Frank says. "He was the biggest promoter in the country of the idea of a dangerous 'yellow peril.' "

"It was an idea that caught on and has continued all the way through the century. It starts out with people rejecting Japanese products and it grows from there. There are some extreme cases--people bashing Toyotas with sledgehammers, Asian Americans targeted in acts of violence."

"Racism is incredibly sub-tle and deep in the culture," Frank notes. "We have stiff economic competition from Canada and Great Britain and Italy and France and we don't reject their products in the same way. The concern only comes up when Asian countries gain economic viability."

At the core of Frank's argument is that the threat to the well- being of America's workforce comes not from abroad but from home, from corporate interests. "The labor movement needs to establish democratic control of the economy--supporting good jobs and social justice. We have to develop trade policy from working people's point of view. It's not just about trade politics, it's about economic redistribution and human rights."

Frank is also the author of Purchasing Power: Consumer Organizing, Gender, and the Seattle Labor Movement, 1919- 1929 (Cambridge University Press, 1994). She has expertise in numerous labor and trade issues, including the American labor movement, economic nationalism, the World Trade Organization, NAFTA, and GATT.

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