As comedian Red Buttons used to warn us in his pixelated children’s song, "Strange things are happening." Here’s one of the strangest.
American companies are being urged by their customers to furnish them with more products made in the United States. People are increasingly annoyed that so many of the things they buy are being made in China or India or Africa or some small nation where employees are locked into a building that burns down and all the occupants die horrible deaths. Or the merchandise has enough small faults in it to eventually turn it into a complete failure.
Also, the natives of these countries have been reading about living wages in other places and want a bigger piece of the action. One American company started off in China some years ago with the pay scale averaging $3 an hour. Right now that company is paying its Chinese workers an average of $11.80 an hour.
It’s not a broken dam flow yet but there are indications that more and more Americans are wanting "Made in America" labels on their goods. This, in combination with the improving wage scales in poor foreign countries is turning things a little bit upside down.
The New York Times recently ran an article by retail reporter Stephanie Clifford on a Minneapolis textile company whose owners want to return their production to the United States from China but are having difficulty finding American factory workers proficient in sewing. They have no problem finding mechanics to tend their elaborate machinery but there are very few industrial sewers available. According to Clifford, "77 percent of the American work force has been lost since 1990 as companies moved jobs abroad."
I have been fascinated by the textile industry ever since I visited the "Mill Girls" museum in Lowell many years ago. The mill girls, whose ages ranged from 15 to 30, were mostly the daughters of New England farmers who sought to break from their accustomed way of life to more adventurous possibilities.
Some 8,000 women took the gamble during the Industrial Revolution in this country and for the first time had money of their own to do with as they desired. Some helped their families and all helped themselves. These women eventually wanted more freedoms than just the chance to earn money on their own. They began to organize for shorter hours than the regular 14, better working conditions, a chance to enrich themselves both intellectually and personally, and freedom to strike or "turn out" when the mill owners tried to reduce wages or increase working hours.
Berkshire County, especially the North Adams-Adams area, had its own mills because of the good water power, and we can still see the tiny employee houses clustered around the former mill sites. And that is also why we have some interesting minority population clusters in the county from the days when foreign workers were brought in when the locals became feisty.
It’s nice to contemplate a time when American corporations start to bring their production back to this country from the low-rate countries to which they have fled. We’ll all have to pay a little more for the products but it will be reassuring to turn to the back of your shirt collar or whatever and see the "Made in America" logo again. There was a time when that phrase stood for something and we can hope that it is coming again.
Go visit the "Mill Girls" museum in Lowell. It’s amazing.
Milton Bass is a regular Eagle