Let’s Not Forget that American Workers are our Allies, not our Enemies

Late last week, I posted on a local Toyota dealership that had sent letters to its customers blaming an overzealous media — and not the company itself — for the recall mess currently slamming the company.  As an aside, I happened to mention that many of the cars now being recalled were built in the United States, that those plants are now (temporarily) closed, and that as a result, Toyota’s problems were going to have a negative impact on the American economy.

A few readers — and I want to emphasize that it was only a few — had a surprising reaction to my observation:  no wonder Toyota is in trouble if they’ve been building cars in the United States.  Here are three examples of what they said:

[T]oyota never had problems until they started making them IN THIS COUNTRY,funny thing about that huh?

Toyotas have never been cars that I cared for, as they appear to be poorly designed and built. But having them built by Americans? That cracks me up! The 2nd worst car designers having their cars built by the worst car builders in the world!

I love my country and all that, but I am often dismayed and chagrined at the lack of pride American workers have in their jobs. . . .I am willing to pay a bit more for American goods, but consider it unacceptable to have to pay more for inferior goods. Wherever we go, I see Americans who do not seem grateful for their jobs – lots of grousing, clock-watching, distraction, attitudes that detract from efficiency.

Okay.  So if I get this straight, the design flaw isn’t the issue, but rather the way the cars are built.  There are only two small problems with that argument.  First, American workers didn’t design the accelerator pedal (or the Prius’s brakes or the Camry’s steering) — Japanese engineers did.  Second, some of the cars being recalled were built outside the United States. 

To be clear, I don’t want to suggest that a few isolated comments represent the views of all Care2 readers, or progressives in general.  But nonetheless I’m dismayed by the fact that more than a couple of folks decided to blame the very individuals they should regard as some of their closest allies.

Since the Roosevelt Administration, America’s workers have served as the backbone of the Democratic party.  It was FDR, after all, who helped the UAW and other unions gain the right to organize and represent workers.  From then on, the Democratic party embraced workers both in terms of its rhetoric and its policies.  President Obama’s decision to save GM and Chrysler represents only the latest example of Democrats’ commitment to the American worker.

Unfortunately, some progressives appear to have forgotten that.  Many say that they support American workers while at the same time mocking their output.  They (we) make assumptions that American workers are lazy, that they don’t care, that they take no pride in their work.

And then they (we) wonder why blue collar voters have been trending Republican since the Reagan Administration.  Or why workers make up a significant chunk of the Tea Party movement.  Or why workers have started to prefer the party that promises to make them rich while implementing policies that make it harder for them to keep their jobs.

The reality is that most American workers produce excellent products that they (and we) should take great pride in.  The reality is that the myth of shoddy output is twenty or thirty years out of date.  The reality is that it is entirely possible to buy American cars (and other products) and be assured of outstanding craftsmanship and quality.

As The Washington Post‘s Warren Brown noted in March 2009,

[I]t’s not so much that Detroit does not make cars Americans want to buy. . . . Detroit makes good cars. The only people who don’t know that are people, who for reasons both valid and ill-founded, long ago abandoned Detroit.

If you live in a big city outside of the industrial Midwest, look around.  Hardly anyone drives American cars anymore.  And tell the truth — whenever someone you know has bought an American car, weren’t you just a little bit surprised? Didn’t you wonder why they didn’t buy the comparable Toyota or Honda (or Lexus or BMW)?

To be completely transparent, I’m as guilty of this as anyone — we bought a Volvo in 2006, and didn’t even look at American brands when we shopped.

For far too long, liberals have bought foreign brands.  Owning a foreign car is as much a part of the lefty/coastie/academic community’s self-image as Whole Foods, yoga, and Mac laptops.

We — all of us, including me — need to acknowledge our share of the responsibility for having abandoned Detroit.  We need to understand that any effort to rebuild the American auto industry requires each of us to start buying American again — and by that I mean cars built in the United States, whether they are in GM plants or Toyota plants.

If we really care about the American worker, if we really want to help turn around the economy, and if you really want President Obama to succeed, there is nothing more important that we could do today.  We all have an individual role to play.  Let’s change the way we think and what we regard as trendy.

It’s not like we have to sacrifice for this to happen.  Detroit is producing great cars; to cite one example, the Ford Fusion was just named the Motor Trend 2010 Car of the Year.  And many are cheaper than their foreign competition.  They should be flying off the lots.  But right now, they’re not.  The problem is not the product, but the perception.

So let’s make buying American cars cool again.  Let’s make it so that movie stars will want to arrive at the Oscars in Ford Fusions instead of Toyota Priuses.  Let’s make it so that high schoolers will want to drive Mustangs, Camaros, and Tesla Roadsters instead of Porsches and Lamborghinis.  Let’s make it so that athletes will want buy the Cadillac STS instead of the BMW 5 series.

There are two stark realities here.  First, Democrats and progressives cannot hope to sustain a majority without the support of American workers.  Second, the United States cannot sustain economic growth if it continues to allow its manufacturing base to erode.

Reversing forty years of bad industrial policy won’t happen overnight.  But we as progressives can start today by changing our world view so that it matches reality — and by respecting the hard work of our fellow Americans.  Doing anything less would be strategically foolish and economically disastrous.

Photo:  Strikers inside of a closed General Motors plant celebrate as the end of the 1937 sitdown strike is announced, Flint, Michigan.  Public domain, via the UAW Archives, Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University.

Charles J. Brown is Senior Fellow and Washington Director at the Institute for International Law and Human Rights and the founder of Undiplomatic, a blog on the intersection of foreign policy, politics, and pop culture.  You also can follow him on Twitter.


Odin Torchwood
Odin Torchwood7 years ago

I would however like to add that thee car which I would buy, I would buy a European made car simply because I live in Europe unless the Japanese car met my CO2 impact by being most eco-friendly.

Odin Torchwood
Odin Torchwood7 years ago

If I was a driver and going to buy a car, I would look firstly at it's environmental impact and performance too. Whether it has hybrid technologie in the engine. and also the capacity values too. My twin has a very old motorbike which he managed to convert the engine so it would run on alcohol instead of petrol (gasoline). Simples.

Sir Walk F.
Sir Walk F7 years ago

@ M C-- Not only is you entire premise wrong, you dont even get the terminology correct. "Fiscal conservatism' merely means the government doesnt spend money they dont have. You are thinking of possibly neo-liberalism, or more likely 'free trade'.

The American consumer is to blame for the outsourcing of a labor force. If americans were willing to pay a few extra cents for american made products, we would still have an economy. You cant blame politics when its the consumers at the end of the day making the choices. and it wouldnt hurt to get your political terminology right, too.

Sir Walk F.
Sir Walk F7 years ago

American-built cars are crap. American (unionized)
auto workers became lazy, fat and complacent as they rose a little higher into the middle class.

I would prefer to buy one of the very inexpensive cars being made in india or china right now, expect that the US wont import them for fear of it shattering the artificially-high auto prices.

If americans want jobs to return to their country, they will have to except very reduced wages. You cant have both high wages AND cheap products. Somethings got to give.

I have no sympathy for the American auto manufacturer. they dug their own graves.

Tery G.
Tery G7 years ago

My opinion is that toyota's problems are the result of toyota management mimicing American management rather than the labor that assembled the vehicles.

Tery G.
Tery G7 years ago

I am guilty of buying a foreign car (honda,prism) For 30 years my first question at the dealership was " What is the best gas mileage car you sell, and how much is it". I've owned the chevy sprint, the geo metro,the chevy prism, and the honda civic. The sprint and the metro were fun to drive, got good gas mileage and weren't very hardy. The prism and honda were less "fun" ,don't get quite the gas mileage, and last forever. It seems that every year the cars get less gas mileage and cost more.

Road LessTraveled
Eric Straatsma7 years ago

There is also the issue of quality and workmanship.

American cars in the past were designed to last 50 to 100K miles, with frequent breakdowns and short warranties. FORD - remember the saying; fix or repair daily?

Those are the kinds of issues that drove people to higher quality cars with longer warranties. The foreign cars typically lasted 200K miles or longer, making them effectively half the price of domestic cars.

The capitalist system consists of competition.. America got stomped on by the foreign competition.

When the US manufacturers wake up and get back to the competitive roots of higher quality, at a lower price, Americans will come back. Until then, consumers in the US are capitalists at heart, and their heart belongs to whoever offers the best 'deal' all around.

I am still waiting for a car manufacturer to offer an electric car that can go all electric for 100-150 miles or so, that plugs in at home, but also has a small engine for longer trips, with regenerative braking. I believe a car like that, priced under the competition will sell in the millions, as it will get INFINITE gas mileage, have lower maintenance costs, and last much longer.

Consumers are asking for a GREEN car like that, but it is not being made by ANY car maker yet... sad, that these people are so clueless.

Pamela M.
pam M7 years ago

Its BIG FAT CAT AUTO MAKER CORPORATIONS that failed the American consumer. No one asks the PAYING consumer what we what in autos.

They simply keep on rolling out larger crap with newer bells and whistles and to hell with gas milage, and making a car that last past its warranty or purchase agreement, which is our main concern.

Fat cat suits at the top have kept us on a rollercoaster of having to buy cars every two years and forever paying for the piece of scrap metal, with inflated gas pricing.

We never should have bailed them out, they bailed out on the American consumer long ago by never asking what we want in a vehicle.

M C.
M C7 years ago

American labour is not at fault for the increasingly poor quality of American manufactures (in general, not just automotive).

What is at fault is the global economic paradigm that is 'fiscally conservative'. For if you want to save money, there is no better way to do so than to allow firms to outsource labour to low-wage countries, where the cost for production decreases, and as a result so does the cost to consumers, and consequently, Americans will have more money in their pockets, right? Wrong. As exporting labour means exporting labour-supporting infrastructure as well - there is better training (though not education) for line workers working in Japan, Mexico, and China, because the manufacture sector is important to those economies, and yes, the government and private sectors fund relevant job-training far better there than in the US (in fact the US private sector funds training in Mexico more so than in the US...).

No, the workers are not the enemy. The enemy is fiscal consevativism, which impedes any real progress in having the government establish national competitive advantages in manufacturing, such as better qualified labour. And it is important that the government do this because, as it stands, automotive corporations and other manufactures have no reason to invest in US training when they can typically get better quality for less wage elsewhere.

A competitive labour force supported by government funding and infrastructure is needed. That means big gov't

Melinda D.
Past Member 7 years ago

I have an American made car because of the Japanese whaling, dolphin slaughters and now the bluefin tuna. I don't blame Japan for the Toyota issues. They didn't have those issues when they were being made in Japan and not in the USA (Yes several Toyota models are put together in the US).