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Is the Boston Tea Party Over? | The Nation

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Is the Boston Tea Party Over?

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For all the populist rhetoric that surrounds protectionism, Frank makes a strong case that its most ardent supporters in American history have been domestic entrepreneurs who often have been among the worst exploiters of workers. On the other hand, she shows that a part of the free-trade movement has consisted of progressive trustbusters who opposed protection for large-scale domestic monopolies. Her point is to show that there have always been big business interests on both sides of the debate; a corporation's position depends on whether it needs protected markets, cheap imports or access to export markets. In 1892 steel magnate Andrew Carnegie demonstrated vividly how protectionism doesn't necessarily translate into benefits for workers. That year, he lowered wages at his big Pennsylvania steel plant in the wake of the raising of steel tariffs. When workers balked, Carnegie's manager shut down the plant and hired 300 Pinkerton detectives to bust up the workers' union.

About the Author

John Cavanagh
John Cavanagh is the director of the Institute for Policy Studies and author, most recently, of Development Redefined:...

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The twentieth-century heyday of the Buy American movement was the early years of the Great Depression. With William Randolph Hearst Jr. blaring Buy American stories across the front pages of his twenty-seven newspapers, the movement took off, culminating in 1933 in Herbert Hoover's signing of a Buy American Act (requiring the federal government to buy only American-made products) on his last day in office. The main backers: companies with large domestic markets. The predominantly white American Federation of Labor (AFL) supported the act too. Much of the campaign was laced with racism aimed at Chinese, Japanese and other immigrant workers. (Hearst himself was explicitly anti-immigrant.)

A number of African-American newspapers and groups responded with a Don't Buy Where You Can't Work campaign that targeted the blatant discrimination in many US firms that were then catering to the US market. Nor did the trade union movement respond with one voice. A number of progressive union leaders split from the AFL to create the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which openly reached out to immigrant labor. (In February 1933, The Nation published an article critical of the Buy American movement. Yet, in an interesting twist four years later, the magazine joined Chinese-American organizations in successfully pressing for a boycott of Japanese-made goods to protest Japanese atrocities in China.)

Franklin Roosevelt entered the presidency in 1933 and reset government priorities toward working people through jobs programs and federal protections for workers. Roosevelt was also in favor of freer trade, however, and he initiated a series of tariff-reducing trade agreements. Again, the big backers were corporations. This time it was International Harvester, Zenith and United Fruit, which wanted foreign markets and protection for their foreign investments.

Frank guides us through free trade's reign in the early post-World War II decades. AFL-CIO president George Meany discouraged a Des Moines union's Buy American campaign by stressing that US workers were dependent on overseas markets and that Buy American would force other countries into the embrace of the Soviet Union and its "satellites." As is well known, at this time the AFL-CIO joined actively in cold war foreign policy to fight communism, in part by fostering pro-US unions overseas.

Then in the seventies the tide began to turn, as American companies shifted increasing amounts of investment overseas, causing a hemorrhage of good US manufacturing jobs, especially in the steel, auto and apparel industries. Frank offers detailed insights into the Buy American campaigns led by the apparel and auto unions in the seventies and eighties, campaigns that again, at times, took on racist overtones. She insightfully criticizes these initiatives for wrongly viewing imports as the enemy rather than the corporate policies of relocating production overseas (and exporting goods back to the United States). Once again, major enterprises--Wal-Mart, New Balance, Milliken & Co. and others--chimed in with Buy American campaigns of their own.

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