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Auto Workers' Union To Launch 'Buy American' Campaign


These have not been the easiest times for America's labor unions, which have been seen as losing influence. But one big one, the United Automobile Workers - or UAW - seems to be gaining some steam right now, and that may be thanks in part to President Trump and his criticism of trade deals like NAFTA and also of companies that move manufacturing overseas. In that spirit, the head of the UAW says it will launch an ad campaign encouraging consumers to, quote, "buy American." Here's NPR's Sonari Glinton.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Dennis Williams, the president of the UAW, could not disagree more with President Donald Trump - immigration, the Affordable Care Act, tax policy, you name it - though there are a few notable exceptions - trade and boycotts.

DENNIS WILLIAMS: We're seeing a trend in this country that boycott may be coming back. And if that happens, it will have a dramatic effect on what the policies and the decisions of corporations are.

GLINTON: Williams sort of called for a boycott of his own at a press conference in Detroit. Now, here's the thing - not just against the foreign automakers but foreign-made cars, even if they were made by American companies.

WILLIAMS: How do we educate the American public on buying cars and trucks when they go to a dealership? And you identify it by a vendor number. And if the vendor number - you can indicate where it was built at, and if it was not built in the United States, don't buy it.

GLINTON: Dana Frank is a professor of U.S. history at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She literally wrote the book on buy American. It's called "Buy American: The Untold Story Of Economic Nationalism."

So when you hear (laughter) a union president say buy American, what jumps to your mind?

DANA FRANK: Well, that there's a long history of this, and there's a lot of reasons why people turn to it. I think we start to be concerned when a union is starting to say that the national identity of an object is something that we should be looking for.

GLINTON: Now, later, Williams clarified that the union would urge consumers to buy union-made vehicles first, then would urge consumers to buy cars made at nonunion factories in the U.S. before buying any imports. Meanwhile, Frank says there's a short distance between these kind of campaigns and racism.

FRANK: People may know the famous case of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man who was beaten to death by three men in Detroit who charged him with having taken away their jobs.

GLINTON: That was after a UAW Buy America campaign in the '80s. These kind of campaigns first gained popularity during the Depression. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper baron, came up with the slogan - like the president's - buy American, hire American.

FRANK: And Hearst ran this huge anti-Japanese campaign, even though there are only about 100,000 people of Japanese descent in the country. And that's one of the campaigns that lay the basis for the internment of Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants during World War II, so this has real consequences.

GLINTON: More recently, there were the ad campaigns of the 1970s. And for those of us of a certain age, this song may ring a bell.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) For the union label...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) When you are buying a coat, dress or blouse.

GLINTON: The UAW's Dennis Williams says the song for the Garment Workers' Union will be a template for his union's new ad campaign.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) To feed the kids and run the house, we work hard, but who's complaining?

FRANK: The problem was that campaign did not have an impact on shopping. Also there were very complicated politics of the Garment Workers' Union at the time.

GLINTON: Dana Frank points out that these campaigns, even with catchy song lyrics, almost never work. For instance, garment work essentially left the U.S. almost completely a few years after this ad ran, and after the last UAW campaign, the American car companies continued to lose market share. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Look for the union label...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) When you are buying a coat, dress or blouse. Remember somewhere... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.