Manufacturing, Shopping and the Middle Class: It’s Our Time to Recast Our Future

Earlier this year, I talked at a press conference about the lasting impression the jingle “Look for the Union Label” had on me. Within moments of mentioning it, people in the room were mouthing back the lyrics to that iconic song.

It struck me then as it still does now the power of shaping public opinion and culture through song. From that came the idea of looking for the 2017 version of “Look for the Union Label” – an anthem to the modern worker, the importance of unions and the value of buying products made here.

When we got to work on the idea, it soon became clear that the world today is very different from 1975. Union density stands at 6.4% for private sector unions. In 1975, we had around 17 million manufacturing jobs. Today it hovers below 12.5 million. Some of those jobs were lost early on to productivity gains, but trade deals – unfair trade – have also gutted the middle class. The biggest winners are companies who maximize profits by finding new ways to cut labor costs (and avoid regulations) through trade. And what do we get here? Cheaper t-shirts.

And just to be clear, I am the president of a major manufacturing union, but what I am saying goes far beyond union jobs. There was a time when these jobs were the cornerstone of communities: good paying with good benefits, the kind of jobs where a basic education gave you and your family a pathway into the middle class. These days, our brightest idea seems to be to give hundreds of millions in incentives to lure companies to build here and that’s the same as mortgaging our future on a credit card: it isn’t sustainable.

We are capable of doing so much better. If we embraced an industrial policy that put building a strong middle class as its central goal, we could rebuild our economy. Somewhere along the way, the goal of letting families prosper fell by the way side. Instead, our great country’s economic policies are driven to maximize profits, even if that meant offshoring jobs to countries where workers are exploited and don’t have independent unions where they can fight back. Resetting the goal changes the polices that flow from it: from how we invest in public education to infrastructure to tax policy to, yes, trade. Without this, we will continue to have haphazard policies that are influenced by a handful of motivated lobbyists who will hone in on their narrow interests and drag us all along for the ride. We need to do better.

This is why we are launching our BuildBuyUSA campaign: to engage in a conversation nationally on building in the USA so we can buy products made in the USA (by well-paid workers). We need to talk about using the power of our wallets to reward good employers, whether we do it because we are concerned about the environment, sweatshops, unions, bringing jobs back or national independence. And we need to also demand that more products be built here as the two issues are inextricably bound.

This campaign rejects the notion being promoted by some that we blame other workers in other lands for our problems. The real harm to Americans happens when our policy makers and employers put profits over people. We want to expand the conversation beyond the union halls to the dinner tables and social networks of all Americans.

And yes, we are going to have our song contest. It will launch in a few months and we look forward to seeing the entries from the best and brightest and talented minds of 2017. As we ramp up to the contest, we will be challenge people to view their purchasing differently and to ask what we can all do collectively, each and every day, to rebuild America’s middle class.

For more information on BuildBuyUSA, click here.

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