It’s been four months since I began my Buy Union! Challenge and it looks like I made it. Looking back over my little union-made adventure, I can say that it was an interesting mixture of joyful activism, annoyance, enlightenment and inconvenience. To be honest with you, I’m not a shopaholic – so it wasn’t like the world was going to end if I couldn’t find something, but still I did learn something important: Based upon my experience it is not possible to completely buy union in this day and age – which is disturbing.
However! It is possible, even convenient to mainly buy union and OVERWHELMINGLY buy American.
The two areas that I found it most difficult on a day-to-day basis to buy union were fresh produce and clothing. I have been a union activist for 20 years and I run a pro-buy-union website – the most comprehensive buy union website anywhere – and I still couldn’t find out which clothes are union-made and whether or not the American produce at union-staffed supermarkets were UFW-picked or not. It was tremendously frustrating.
I believe in buying union. 70% of America’s GDP comes from consumer spending. It’s not empty rhetoric that how you spend your money matters. It has a very real impact upon how our society develops – not just in terms of pure economic vitality, but in the overall quality of life of our society. There are good companies out there that care about their employees and empower them to have a better life.
Here’s the problem: They’re not working hard enough to let you know that… and the unions aren’t helping getting that message out either. With the exception of some smaller companies that are advertising their positive environmental impact or their fair trade relationships, companies overwhelmingly advertise two things: Cheap and convenient. Unfortunately, for the most part cheap and convenient also means two things: Foreign made or low domestic wages.
I was particularly taken by my experience at union-staffed Macy’s. So much of their clothing was made in places like Bangladesh or Malaysia where workers are being paid CENTS on the hour – often five dollars A DAY… and what does the shirt cost? $40. It’s criminal. The truth is that American-made, union-made goods and services cost about the same as non-union, foreign-made, sweatshop goods and services – but with sweatshop made goods those savings are not being passed along to the consumer. Executives are making HUGE profits off poor foreigners and increasingly poor Americans. We, as consumers, can right this ship by making ethical decisions when we shop.
Here are our winners & losers:
Winners – in no particular order
- Processed Foods: Breakfast foods, dairy, baked goods, snacks, candies, pasta, sauces, condiments, pre-packaged meats
- Travel: Airlines, airports, public transportation, rental cars
- Pet supplies
- Personal products: OTC medicine, toiletries
- Cleaning products
- Entertainment Venues: Theme parks & Sporting events
- Public Services: Parks, libraries, dog pound
- Printer paper
- Indian casinos
- 99 Cent Store
- Clothing & Shoes
- Office supply stores
- Home improvement stores
- Christmas shopping
- Smart phones & Tech gadgets
- Large retail
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Fast food
Confusing & Frustrating
- Drug stores (some CVS Pharmacies unionized; others are not)
- Retail (Macy’s—some unionized; others are not)
- Big box retail (Costco—some unionized; others are not)
- Cereals and baked goods (even for unionized companies like Kellogg’s, some of their sub-brands like “Whole Grain Cheerios WITH STRAWBERRIES” are actually made in Mexico, though their main brand is made in American in a union plant. One doesn’t know the difference until you look at the box.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables (tiny labels make it difficult to know if they are American grown or foreign grown)
- Restaurants (several restaurants of historic value and quality, but not enough of them in such a sprawling city)
- Fast food (meats are often union-processed, but restaurants are not union staffed)
- Cars (American cars often made in Mexico and/or contain many non-union, non-American parts, even when assembled at a union plant. Most American car (including parts) is the Toyota Corolla. Huh?)
- 99 Cent Store (FILLED with cheap union-made products and might use unionized Teamsters to ship, but non-union cashiers and stockers)
- If a person wants to commit to buying American and buying union be the guiding principle of their shopping decisions, they can do it with relatively minor inconvenience but only if they require that there be only SOME union role in the manufacturing, shipping, storing or customer service chain. It is very difficult to continuously have an ALL-UNION experience from Point A (design and manufacturing) to the point of sale. It can be done, but it is highly inconvenient.
- We undervalue the ubiquity and consistency of public services provided by public service union members, whether it be parks or our libraries. We only notice them when things go wrong… or when you’re taking a Buy Union! challenge.
- Union products and services tend to have a higher level of quality than non-unionized products and services. We should celebrate that.
- Union food is complicated – many unionized products are processed with lots of salt and sugar, and lack the artistic flare of more indie products (such as from health food or specialty stores). The good news is that many of the UFCW & BGTCM made products are starting to get on the “make it healthy” bandwagon.