Many Americans are familiar with the term “globalization,” just as most households enjoy the benefits that global trade agreements have offered U.S. consumers, such as cheaply priced goods imported from Asian countries.
But few Americans fully understand the stark ramifications of globalization as intimately as U.S. factory workers. Over the last 30 years, millions of manufacturing employees have seen their factories close and their jobs outsourced to cheaper labor markets overseas, as U.S. companies struggle to stay competitive in our new globalized economy.
In “Factory Man,” author and journalist Beth Macy gives readers an intimate look at this process as she recounts the Shakespearean rise and fall of one family-owned Virginia furniture company during a time of rapid globalization, and how one man fought to keep his factory doors from closing.
For nearly a century, the Bassett Furniture Company was the center of life in the town of Bassett, Va., just as its wealthy namesake family was the foundation of the town’s prosperity. The company was once known as the largest manufacturer of wood furniture in the world. But that all changed in the 1980s, when cheaper Chinese manufacturing began flooding the American furniture market.
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This furniture was sold to American retailers at prices 20 percent to 30 percent lower than what American furniture companies, like Bassett Furniture, could afford to charge while still turning a profit. The new overseas competition threatened the Bassett family legacy, as well as the livelihoods of hundreds of Virginians.
But as the leaders of Bassett Furniture reluctantly embraced the wave of cheap imports and moved its production facilities overseas, one man fought back: John Bassett III, a third-generation factory man and as Macy describes him, the family black sheep who’s now chairman of Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Company and the employer of more than 700 men and women.
Relying on a combination of smarts, grit and business acumen, Bassett formed a majority coalition of factory owners and petitioned the U.S. Department of Commerce to investigate whether furniture factories in countries like China were illegally underselling, or “dumping,” their exported goods at a loss to drive American companies out of business. If found guilty of dumping, these foreign companies could be charged with retroactive duties on their product — duties that would be given to their American competitors.
Macy expertly recounts the tense behind-the-scenes battle between furniture magnates that ultimately led to Bassett winning his antidumping case in 2005. The settlement money he received not only saved his factory from closing and preserved hundreds of jobs in the small town of Galax, Va., but it allowed him to invest in and expand his business.
Through meticulous research, as well as interviews with factory workers, townspeople, John Bassett and other members of the colorful, strong-willed Bassett family, Macy illustrates the continuing struggle of American companies to remain solvent while retaining the right to label their products “Made in America.”
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. An interview with Macy airs today. Previous shows are online and available for podcast at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner. Follow us on Facebook and like us on Twitter. Search for “Reader’s Corner.”