October 10, 2014    Volume 21, No. 15

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Factory Man': The Book, The Author, The Man, And All The Rest -- The Millions Of Forgotten People


By Richard A. McCormack
richard@manufacturingnews.com

Factory Man -- the most popular non-fiction, non-academic book ever published about an anti-dumping trade case -- is a worthy read for three reasons: The protagonist is a fiery, patriotic industrialist who was chastised by his industry and his big retail customers for using the trade laws to save his company; the author is an accomplished writer who knows how to tell a compelling story; and the book vividly describes the ruinous impact of U.S. trade policies on individuals and their communities.

Factory Man is about the annihilation of an entire industry and a middle-class way of life that it supported. What is left in a region of the country that prospered for a century is wreckage, and little else: burned-out factories, rotting homes and empty towns. Yet with all of the evidence still in plain view, the free-trade agenda that favors foreign producers and financiers rolls on, much to the chagrin of Factory Man author and Roanoke Times journalist Beth Macy.

Pursuing the story of Bassett Furniture as a reporter who did not cover business, Macy says that she knew that virtually all of the factories in her region of southeastern Virginia and North Carolina had closed, "but I didn't understand the steps that led to it," she tells MTN. "The people making the big money were all going to work every day, but what happened to the workforce that lost their jobs? In one county alone 20,000 people lost their job. The little people really got screwed by globalization."

Factory Man is about how only one furniture industry manufacturing company owner, John Bassett III, had the courage to lead a valiant and successful charge against Chinese producers and importers who were dumping competing products into the U.S. bedroom furniture market.

It took Macy two years of conducting hundreds of interviews with factory workers and owners, trade lawyers, government officials, market analysts and economists for her to realize this: "Nobody [in the United States] is minding the backroom in the new global store."

Trying to figure out who is looking out for the interests of American workers "was the whole line I was riding, and I realized that nobody is," she adds.

Macy describes the process by which an entire American industry disappeared due to rapidly rising imports.

Despite her description of U.S. trade policy run amuck, Macy says she has not been challenged by free-trade economic policy elites who continue to foster the policy. Her book has received favorable and even glowing reviews in business publications such as the Wall Street Journal that have promoted these policies. It reached number 21 on the New York Times Best Sellers list.

Macy wrote herself into the book, which has been picked up by HBO and actor Tom Hanks to be made into a miniseries. Her personal story adds a deeper dimension to the plight of millions of Americans whose lives have been destroyed (and that is not too strong a term) by U. S. government trade policies.

As the daughter of a displaced factory worker, Macy was the first in her family to go to college. "Back in the early '80s, if you were a poor kid of some limited promise, you could go to school and everything would be paid for because of Pell Grants," she says.

But that is no longer possible. State budgets for higher education and financial aid have been cut. Tuition has skyrocketed. "How are these factory workers' kids going to make a better life for themselves if the money isn't there to educate them for higher-tech jobs?" she asks. "The economic change happened over the course of the last couple of decades and all of the old bureaucracies haven't adjusted."

The failure of America's trade agenda is told through the eyes of the people who have been in the unfortunate position of having to live it. Displaced workers now do whatever menial and off-the books jobs they can to survive. They mow lawns, clean homes, make crafts and foodstuffs and grow their own food. Former factory workers in their 50s "are doing anything they can to manage until their Social Security kicks in," says Macy. One woman who lost six jobs in 18 years due to plant closures went back to school in her 50s. Now she bakes cakes and has her sister take them to work to sell by the slice. The Trade Adjustment Assistance program for workers, backed by those who have pushed the free trade agenda, does not work, Macy adds.

But their stories can't compare to what John Bassett III faced in trying to save his company from Chinese producers. Bassett travels to China to see how his competitors are able to under price his products. He goes directly into the plant that is producing his line of furnishings and talks with its owner. He finds low-paid Chinese working in dangerous and dirty factories that would be closed down within a minute by federal regulators if they were operated in the United States. Why are products that are not allowed to be produced in such conditions in the United States be allowed to be sold in the United States?

One of the most enlightening stories Macy tells is of Bassett being asked to make a presentation to the United States Trade Representative on the American furniture industry's Chinese dumping case. When he showed up at the meeting, President Bush's Trade Rep Rob Portman wasn't there; his deputy in his place.

The meeting was to last an hour. The first 40 minutes were consumed by foreign countries "especially China," writes Macy, speaking in opposition to the Byrd Amendment, which allowed American companies winning trade cases to receive the duties collected on unfair imports. Here is how Macy recounted the meeting, referring to John Bassett III as "JBIII."

"JBIII had a page full of notes on his legal pad, and he had been practicing his remarks in the shower for days. But by the time he was given the floor, there was just 10 minutes left.

"An astute observer looking down on the scene would have noticed the red creeping into John Bassett's face. That person would have noted the eye rolls, the nervous up-and-down bouncing of the head and the knee, the pocket change clinking against the silver money clip, the frequent checks of the pocket watch -- a gift from his wife, engraved with a favorite line from his favorite movie, Casablanca: The fundamental things apply.

"John Bassett had some fundamental things he wanted to say now, and he was furious that his time was nearly up.

"He picked up his legal pad, turned it over, and slammed it on the table. Then he asked the audience members to turn around and look behind them -- to the American seal displayed on the door. [Bassett's Washington trade lawyer] Joe Dorn looked as if he might faint.

" 'What country do you represent?' JBIII asked the lawyer from the trade representative's office.

"Um, the United States, he said.

"The ass-chewing commenced: 'We've been here forty-five minutes and you haven't mentioned our country once. Listen, you are not paid to look after these other countries, you're paid to look after us.'

"When the staffer objected, saying, 'No one's ever talked to me like this before," JBIII cut him off.

"Well, somebody should have, sir. China has its own trade rep, and I'm quite sure that person is capable of looking after China. Yo' job is to look after us."

Having lost most of its basic consumer industries like furniture, the United States has been struggling to recover from the Great Recession. The federal budget deficit remains at half a trillion dollars a year; the trade deficit is of equal magnitude. American's can't feed themselves, with 47 million people receiving food stamps, and 9 million on Social Security Disability, more than there are production workers (8.6 million) employed in the manufacturing sector.

The millions of despondent workers described by Macy still have no voice. Their message of economic despair -- the reason the country remains collectively unsettled -- has still not reverberated among the economic ideologues setting policy in Washington.

So begs the question: Why aren't these people outraged enough to demand changes to policy in Washington? "I don't understand that, either," Macy responds. "Are they so demoralized? Are the ones I found working part time at Walmart afraid of losing their jobs? What do we do for these people now? That is the question I hope the reader is left with, but I don't have the answers. Those people needed to have their story told to get people to think about those questions."


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