With over $500 million a year in sales, the Bassett Furniture Company was once the world's biggest wood furniture manufacturer. Run by the same powerful Virginia family for three generations, it was also the center of life in Bassett, VA-an unincorporated town that existed solely for the people who built the company's products. But beginning in the 1980s, the Bassett company suffered from an influx of cheap Chinese furniture as the first waves of Asian competition hit, and ultimately was forced to send its production offshore to Asia.
Only one man fought back. That man is John Bassett III, a descendant of the Bassetts who is now chairman of Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co, which employs more than 700 Virginians and has sales of over $90 million. In Factory Man, Beth Macy brings to life Bassett's deeply personal furniture and family story. As she shows how he uses legal maneuvers, factory efficiencies, and sheer grit, cunning, and will to save hundreds of jobs, she also discovers the hidden and shocking truth about industry and America.
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Portrait of a One Fingered Salute!
Brilliant but disturbing
John Bassett III Because the book is all about him and his personality. He is many things all rolled up into one.
No, I have not.
By far the most heart rending story in the entire book is when JB III was observing a manufacturer in China in the finishing stain and sealant spraying area of the plant. He noted the lack of ventilation and protective gear for the workers. These workers are Chinese presents, fresh from the farm that makes money for their families. When JB III asks his host about the concentration of toxins and lack of protections his host simply and shockingly observed that, ‘they last about three years; then they die; then we get new man.’ This cold disregard for human life tells me China is where we were in our early industrial age 200 years ago. Only by looking back can we encompass and understand the horror of such a statement. We can only seek to understand it. We can never condone it.
Factory Man is a portrait of a specific individual, namely John Bassett III, the son of a North Carolina furniture manufacturing dynasty. It is also a reflection of the history of furniture manufacturing in America and the world. The subtitle of this book is How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town. In as far as Vaughan-Bassett Furniture Co, employs more than 700 Virginians and has sales of more than $90 million the subtitle is true. As much as I personally applaud Mr. Bassett’s personal commitment to his people, determination, pluck, and downright scrappiness in the face of the Asian tsunami wave of computation that created that “giant sucking sound” that swallowed up 673,000 American furniture manufacturing jobs, as Ross Perot predicted when he described the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement NAFTA, Mr. Bassett’s accomplishment is only marginally effective for what is one tenth of one percent of the lost in workforce. It reminds me of the image of the mouse giving the one fingered salute to the eagle about to devour him. Except in this case it is a Chinese dragon about to dine on the mouse. However, people love stories of the underdog battling a mismatched opponent and winning. From that prospective John Bassett III is a star spangled, red, white and blue bedecked, all American hero. We wish to God we had more like them. Why we don’t becomes obvious in my later comments.
As with any good portrait, this portrait on John Bassett III, not only depicted him with all his admirable qualities, but also his warts and flaws as well. For example, it is described in a matter-of-fact way how the furniture industry in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with its union wage scales, lost out to southern manufacturers, in their right-to-work anti-union states, and unofficial two tiered wage scales; one for white workers and another lower one for black workers. There is no doubt that John is to be admired in that he insisted on an integrated work force. Even if the black workers got less money and the dirtier of the shop jobs at least he provided work to both races. Not all southern manufacturers had an integrated work force at that time. I do not get the sense that John did this because he was a raciest. No! he was just a southern gentleman; product of his time. To balance this when he fought for and won those 700 Virginian jobs it was jobs for both races. It is interesting that JB III as he likes to be called is acutely aware that he and other integrated manufactures owe their completive edge to their black workers. At one point he acknowledges that his black workers help make him rich.
There is also an example of southern paternalism or perhaps less harshly just doing the right thing, when JB III visits a retired worker and gives them, “a little piece of money” to help them along. These kind of anecdotal stories, although speaking well of John’s humanity, compassion, and charity still prick the listeners conscious when remembering the idled Grand Rapids workers due to the built in southern dual wage scale that gave advantage to the company that enriched John and his family.
The real eye opener story in this book is how many other manufactures entered into collusion agreements with Chinese manufactures to ship manufacturing jobs to China in exchange for, not fighting, closing their factories, and accepting a sweet heart deal to put their brand names on Chinese manufactures products and sell them is if they had made here. The American brand names got a cut of the profits the Chinese swamped local manufactures, not playing ball, by undercutting prices and pushed the local manufacturer to the wall. How is this not, the same thing that southern manufactures did to Grand Rapids a half century earlier, one might ask? Simple, the Chinese government put their fat thumb of a governmental subsidy on the cost of production scale to the Chinese manufactures advantage; allowing them to market their product in the US at less than the cost to manufacture it in China. When John Bassett III realized this he assembled a collision of manufacturers to made use of the Byrd amendment to slap duties on the Chinese manufactured goods whose funds were directed back to participating suit manufacturers to modernize their plants and become completive. John did this with his plant. Alas not all manufactures used the money to modernize and compete. A good deal of the manufactures used the funds to feather their corporate salary nest while the American Nation was left to retrain the dislocated workers through Trade Readjustment Act funds. Some of those who did not or could not retrain sought to protect their income long term by seeking Social Security Disability Benefits. However, that is a sore subject not covered in this book. In my opinion, it is hard to blame them when corporations did the same thing by pocketing the money meant for modernization. In my opinion, there is enough moral condemnation for both kinds of system abusers. I will not condemn one without condemning the other.
The sad conclusion to this story, is that although the little guy, John Bassett III, did succeed in saving a town and 700 jobs, China quietly moved their operations first to Viet Nam and then to Indonesia to avoid paying the duty on future products and become the job generating powerhouse of Asia. Although our policy leaders are not saying this aloud, it appears that they have reached the policy conclusion that it is better to allow this competition and engage the world on the globalized field of commerce by allowing their cheaper wage structure to hollow out our manufacturing prowess rather than keep our jobs, frustrate their growth, and face an angry nation of wants and unmet needs of a failed state, with a huge army seeking to level the playing field violently. Sadly, in the big picture sense, this is probably a good call geopolitically speaking. Unfortunately, the projected re-investment in America, in education, high tech jobs, and updated infrastructure leading to a work force of MIT graduates that will imaginer the next prosperous golden age has not occurred. In its’ place we have concentrated wealth in fewer and fewer hands some of whom renounce their citizenship to avoid paying taxes or hide their money in foreign banks. This is creating a swelling tide of resentment here at home. Money classes beware of this trend!
What can I say?
- marylin copeland