American manufacturing has been in trouble even since its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the United States was the global economic powerhouse and American assembly-line workers earned very decent middle-class wages.
That era of prosperity was not, as is so often claimed, the manifestation of the American dream. Rather, it was, or should have been, a warning sign that America was riding a fleeting wave of progress. Almost nobody was looking hard enough to the future and asking what it would take to sustain success.
The reason so many manufacturing-sector workers in the United States received such high pay at that time was not that they had exceptional skills or had received superior training; it was that the corporations for which they worked were unsurpassed in their dominance and generated huge revenues.
But that dominance was, to a considerable degree, a momentary quirk of history: the absence, in the wake of World War II, of any real competition from other nations.
And GE Consumer & Industrial CEO James Campbell reiterated it when he recently told the New York Times that “making things in America is as viable as making things any place” because domestic labor costs are now “significantly less with the competitive wages” — read: far lower wages — now accepted by American workers.
Now that this consensus is finally out in the open, the real question for America is simple: Do we accept an economic competition that asks us to emulate China?
If our answer is yes, then we should support current state legislative proposals to reduce child labor protections; back federal legislation to eliminate all environmental, wage and workplace safety laws; and applaud corporations that crush unions and further reduce wages in America. We should also probably encourage our fellow countrymen to follow Apple Inc.’s Chinese workforce by simply accepting $17-a-day paychecks, 12-hour workdays and six-day workweeks.
Wouldn’t you know it, her Grey Ladyship, The New York Times, has an opinion piece on the localization of manufacturing. Allison Arieff observes that “the monolithic industry model — steel, oil, lumber, cars — has evolved into something more nimble and diversified . . . as manufacturers see the benefits of being smaller and paying attention to how patterns of consumption, ownership and use are shifting.” Mark Dwight started SFMade in 2010 to promote local manufacturing in San Francisco: for example, here’s an upcoming workshop on setting up a manufacturing process. Kate Sofis, executive director of SFMade, observes:
“Manufacturing isn’t dead and doesn’t need to be preserved,” she says. “Let’s stop fixating on what’s lost. Let’s see what we have here, what’s doing well, and let’s help those folks do better.”
Pride of place helps in the branding and marketing of local manufactures and, of course, it plays into the sustainability pitch, which is sometimes real, and sometimes not (do I hear BP?).
There’s a similar game afoot in New York City, Made in NYC, and her Grey Ladyship has written a number of articles about local manufacturing successes: envelopes, bicycles, brushes, boilers, specialty lights, and mattresses. And, of course, readers list other examples in their comments. Arieff notes that “growing consumer demand for greener, more ethically produced products, along with skyrocketing unemployment and nervousness about globalization all work in the groups’ favor.”
And those demands are all over the place. Local’s the way to go. After all, that’s where everyone is, no? If you aren’t where you are, then where could you possibly be?