Towns live and die and workers ?

Published 6:30 am Saturday, September 28, 2019

By Vivian Blevins


The U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, reported in August of this year that the unemployment rate is 3.7 percent. That’s good news – unless you are one of the 6 million unemployed or one of the employed making eight dollars an hour with no benefits or working in the restaurant business and depending on tips to make up the difference between your wage of three or four dollars and the minimum wage in your state.

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In the mining industry, employment recently declined by 6,000 workers. With winter about to begin and heating bills coming in, mining families are praying for a mild winter. I’m most familiar with the coal mining industry in West Virginia and Kentucky as well as some of the coal mining in Wyoming and Montana where the coal burns cleaner. I’m also acquainted with the mining for mineral resources in the western states which has resulted in abandoned mines where unemployment on Native American reservations is astronomical and their lands are polluted from run off, resulting in not only unemployment but also health hazards.

I recently read Factory Man by Beth Macy and learned about the U.S. furniture industry decimated by globalization. The subtitle of Macy’s book is “How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local- and Helped Save an American Town.”

If you are one of the fortunate in our country who is gainfully employed and are in demand because of your skill set, your college education and certifications, your age, your mobility, your good health, you need to realize there are many Americans who have a skill set that is no longer in demand because those jobs they once did are now being done in Asian countries for a fraction of the cost of the same jobs in the U.S. Add shipping and tariffs for goods, and the cost is still less.

Macy writes about the Bassett Furniture Company. If you have furniture in your home that has been passed down to you from your grandparents, you might locate that company’s name stamped in a non-conspicuous place on the items. At one time Bassett dominated the world in producing wood furniture.

All that changed with treaties ratified by the United States and the resultant globalization. Do you have an easy solution for persons in our southern states who were most harshly impacted in the furniture industry? Do you want them to go back to school to become skilled in areas where there is high job demand, move from areas where their family roots are deep, and get on with their lives? Perhaps they might get a factory job in the north making $10 an hour. What, however, if they are close to retirement and in spite of anti-discrimination laws, know they could not be hired because of their age? What if their bodies are broken from hard physical labor?

Or are you the person who says, ”I’ve benefited from the cheap labor in Asia. I have furniture, electronics, and clothing at a fraction of what I would have to pay if it were made in the U.S.A.”

Macy details the espionage and theft of intellectual property that occurred in the furniture industry so that Asian companies could produce the same results as American furniture makers were producing at a fraction of the cost.

As President Trump has been involved in tariff wars in the past few months, you’ve observed the tug of war and the cries of groups such as soy bean farmers who count on exports for their crops.

Additionally, you might ask if we have any moral/ethical responsibility for the ways in which workers in Asian plants are treated: stacked up in abominable living quarters and being exposed to chemicals that we would not tolerate for a moment in American furniture factories.

Back to unemployment in the small towns of the U.S. where solid employment is gone and is never coming back. You’ve seen that not only in small towns but also in small cities where the malls that housed Sears, Elder Beerman, Belks, J.C. Penney are nearly empty or closed and have given way to discount stores and on-line shopping where items bought on line appear at our doorsteps quickly with little information on the packages but with tags that read “Made in China” or “Made in Vietnam” or “Made in Indonesia.”

With the rise of the middle class in China, American manufacturers who have agreements with Asian countries are just packing up and moving to the next country where labor is cheaper and conditions for workers virtually unregulated.

The Factory Man, John D. Bassett, III, (born 1938) was successful with his leadership philosophy of investing in people and new equipment to save a small part of that Bassett empire, even as other furniture-making town in Virginia and the Carolinas went belly up. And Bassett has sons who bring their special talents to Vaughan-Basssett.

In conclusion, as I tell my students at Edison State Community College where I teach, “Don’t for a minute think that there are easy solutions to problems. There are pluses and minuses, and your job as educated Americans is to realize the complexities of decision making, weigh the pros and cons for any course of action (realizing that others will assign different weights to those same arguments).

We collaborate; we see the viewpoints of others; we compromise; we make the best decisions we can at any moment in time; we move on with our lives. We don’t , however, forget those Americans who are not as fortunate as we. That’s why we have safety nets. That’s why we are the United States as opposed to States of the Haves and the Have Nots. That’s why we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and those making decisions in D.C. need to factor that into their decision making.

Dr. Vivian Blevins is a Harlan County native. She has taught undergraduate and graduate students as well as prison inmates, and now teaches communication and American literature classes at Edison State Community College in Ohio. Reach her at