Economic Crisis, Buy American, and Sweatfree Organizing

The "Buy American" movement that has accompanied the push for economic stimulus has created space for discussing fundamental changes to the rules that have gutted local economies. At its best, this movement is inspired by a sense of solidarity with American workers, caring for our neighbors, and a genuine desire to revitalize local economies. At its best, the movement's message does not stop at "Buy American," which right now could include underground factories in Los Angeles or New York City where U.S. companies profit off the backs of hard-working immigrant workers earning less than the minimum wage. As a first step, we should put "Buy Union" back in "Buy American." Changing business as usual cannot mean replacing overseas sweatshops with U.S. sweatshops.

The sweatfree movement has succeeded in promoting a popular understanding that when labor standards improve in export-driven countries abroad, the playing field becomes more level for U.S. workers – particularly U.S. union workers. Our fates are inextricably linked – to save U.S. jobs so that we can "Buy American" requires supporting worker organizing and improved standards overseas. We need to make the U.S. an enticing place to manufacture goods not by degrading labor standards at home, but by helping to improve conditions everywhere. And there's a bonus: Good jobs stimulate the economy much better than bad jobs. And that includes good jobs overseas that put money in the pockets of workers who can buy U.S. exports. Now, more than ever, we should – and can – support better labor standards and worker organizing both in the U.S. and around the world.

The sweatfree movement is one strategy within a broader vision of change. As we connect with other movements, we can encourage the "Buy American" message to expand to build demand for decent jobs with a living wage and benefits, with freedom to unionize, provided by locally-owned ethical businesses.

In addition to injecting "Buy Union" into "Buy American," let's make sure that no public spending – and especially not those new stimulus dollars that we will eventually need to repay China – support sweatshop jobs in China or anywhere else. Let's make sure that all government purchasing is "sweatfree" so that we can harness governments' economic relationships with both domestic and overseas suppliers to support workers' human and labor rights everywhere.




re: Economic Crisis, Buy American, and Sweatfree Organizing

This article hints that a "Buy American" policy might not be the best policy, but does not come out and say so.

Such protectionist policies are very tempting in times like this, but all economists say that protectionist policies implemented around the world at the beginning of the Great Depression made the Depression far deeper and longer than it otherwise would have been.

If the US, as the second largest economy in the world (after the EU), were to adopt a "Buy American" policy, countries which currently import from us would be more likely to reduce their imports in response.

The way out of the recession is through increased employment. The author is correct in arguing that US wages and competitivity can be increased as wages around the world are improved. Low wages and poor working conditions in other countries allow employers to extract concessions from US workers.

re: Economic Crisis, Buy American, and Sweatfree Organizing


I completely agree with both the spirit and sentiments expressed in your article. However, I suggest that you add "buy from worker-owned businesses and cooperatives" to the "buy union" call. We recently helped to form a worker-owned sewing cooperative in Morganton, North Carolina called "Opportunity Threads" for the very reasons you articulate. Although to-date the co-op is only making stuffed animals out of our excess socks (all made in NC as well, at seven different sock mills that are non-union but that I believe do provide fair wages), but we are working now to help raise capital for an apparel production line. I have no doubt that these workers will be successful, but they need the support of oru community.


re: Economic Crisis, Buy American, and Sweatfree Organizing

Bena-- thank you for raising the point about supporting worker-owned businesses and cooperatives. This certainly was an unintentional omission from my article.

As you know, our Shop with a Conscience Guide features products made both in union shops and in worker-owned coops.

Good to learn about the new coop in North Carolina!

re: Economic Crisis, Buy American, and Sweatfree Organizing

Hi - This is Kenneth in Pittsburgh.

It's about time we started talking about this in a systematic way. The internationalism anti sweatshop activists work to promote flies right in the face of 40+ years of "Buy American" union eduction, perhaps the most successful and persistent union education that has gone on over that 40 years.

The "Buy American" campaigns are the replacement for the "Union Label" campaign - a profound triumph of nationalism over solidarity.

Are any of our friends in the labor movement at the table in a meaningful way with the AFL-CIO "union label" committee pushing policy discussions? I don't think so. That tells us where this conversation really is. Buy American and support sweatshop workers in Bangladesh are clearly contradictory messages.

I don't know what the answer is except to continue our solidarity work and NOT shy away from this discussion. The BEST answer is to allow the contradiction to fester and have victories start having victories that concretely support workers in other countries.

It would be nice if the anti sweatshop forces within the labor movement stepped out on a limb and advanced the labor movement's policy discussion within the AFL-CIO Union Label Committee. It is the most important union education machine within the organization.

My writing about how this has all manifested itself in the context of SweatFree Baseball is available in the "SweatFree Baseball" section of IWW.ORG.

Oh - and I remind myself that words like "nationalism" and "protectionism" don't help us in the debates. Stick with "solidarity" and "focusing on what workers have in common" and pointing out our "similarities rather than difference."

Pointing out the internal problems with Buy Union makes sense too... usually is is only one relatively small bargaining unit that is used to market what is otherwise a sweatshop industry. Everybody knows this... it is a matter of power and the table where the discussion will take place.

Are we afraid? Do anti sweatshop activists see themselves as a little bump/support committee for the unions or as a force for change?

The students are clear on their internationalism. The collision of the student movement and the union movement could be the best thing we have going for us.