Book tells story of man who fought cheap labor
June 11, 2016
Outsourcing has become a staple of American business as well as a talking point for politicians of every stripe. Globalization is becoming increasingly inevitable as the world grows closer and economies around the world advance and progress. Trade is a perpetual issue, even outside of an election cycle, for there is no denying that American manufacturing has suffered a steady decline for decades.
Journalist Beth Macy, herself the daughter of a factory worker, has written a well-researched and in-depth book about one man — a hero to many and a villain to others — who stood up in defiance against the strong riptide of cheap labor pulling American manufacturing industries across the ocean to China and other points throughout Asia. "Factory Man; How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local — and Helped Save an American Town," encompasses the compelling history of the earliest days of one family of Appalachian furniture manufacturers as well as their ongoing story as they struggle through the modern era and the resulting unemployment and heartache that has followed in the rural communities that once provided steady, honest employment.
Macy opens her book with an anecdote that personifies how foreign companies have, during the past several decades, managed to crack the ultimate American code of greed. By providing a cheap short cut to big financial returns, the Chinese, among others, have deftly played a long con, for "the Americans were not only knocking one another over in a stampede to import the cheapest furniture they could but were also ignoring the fact that they were jeopardizing their own factories back home by teaching their Asian competitors every nuance of the American furniture-making trade."
Though Macy frames much of her narrative against the global backdrop, her main focus is on American furniture maker, John D. Bassett III, a man of dramatic personality and unparalleled pit bull doggedness. As she deftly reveals the Bassett story, it becomes clear that it involves a family drama, though most of the fighting takes place in board rooms. Given the titillating nature of the rumored familial tensions, Macy wanted to know what had inspired Bassett to stay in the failing community and fight for his factories to stay open against a seemingly unstoppable tsunami of economic hardships.
A year of extensive research and numerous visits to the back corners of rural Virginia, as well as to the crowded streets of Indonesia contributed to the framework of puzzle pieces that helped Macy tell the story, which really begins long before NAFTA and TPP became household terms.
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Tale of change
In a part of Virginia known for its tobacco and corn — and for its tumultuous history rooted in slavery — is Bassett, the company town that grew out of the hopes and dreams of John Bassett Sr., who, using his charismatic forcefulness, lured a fledgling railroad company to run its tracks through the narrow valley along the Smith River during the 19th century.
The first main moneymaker was a sawmill, which made railroad ties for the very train tracks that stretched across the valley floor. A transition was then made from being a lumber provider to being a furniture supplier, meaning the Bassett family could "make the furniture in the same place they milled the lumber." At the turn of the century, the young factory came to define the town that took on the family name, and the rest was history — a turbulent, cantankerous and restless history.
Macy sifts carefully through that family history, building a picture of a tightly knit community heavily reliant on the factories that provided them with a livelihood. Not everyone agrees upon John Bassett III's motives for his fight against offshoring, but no one can deny his determination to see it through even when things got ugly, which was frequently. Macy's telling of one small town's fight against moneyed interests and powerful nations is timely and well worth reading.
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