Every article you read about manufacturing in the U.S. focuses on what used to be and no longer is – tales of woe about communities that have gone down the toilet and companies that now do business in Mexico, Bangladesh, or worse, Mississippi. When was the last time you saw a story about a company that not only continues to manufacture in the U.S. but isn't constantly threatening to leave?
This story about the Airstream company, maker of those shiny jellybean-shaped trailers, is an interesting commentary on the differences between the companies that stay and those that fled across the border as soon as NAFTA allowed it.
It has been several years, but I used to watch on occasion the John Ratzenberger-hosted TV series Made in America on sleepless nights and I was always struck by the bizarre juxtaposition of the host's Extreme Teabag politics and the countless examples in every show that put the lie to all of the right-wing whining about our government failing to be Business Friendly. It takes a weird person to host a show that profiles three or four successful American businesses per episode while also believing that taxes and wages are so high that it's impossible to make a go of a business in the U.S.
So what enables some companies to make it here while so many argue that they can't? The Airstream piece suggests that one useful ingredient is being run by a person or a family rather than a faceless Board of Directors or a CEO in another state. I'm sure plenty of small business owners or family businesses are assholes, of course. And I'm sure that even the "good ones" like the owner profiled here work hard to push down wages, costs, and so on. That's business. Yet having a person who actually feels some connection to the company and its employees would increase the odds of staying put.
The other thing that jumps out is the cost of the final product from a company like Airstream. The days of making disposable ballpoint pens in the U.S. are probably gone for good, but it makes it easier for a company to justify (in the strict "bottom line" MBA-speak sense) paying decent wages in the U.S. when the end result retails for six figures. I do think it's naive, though, for the article to suggest that the workers in Middle of Nowhere, OH are uniquely skilled and the company could not replicate that elsewhere. If Mexican factories can churn out $50,000 luxury cars, they can figure out how to make a trailer that won't fall apart.
While there are people who have studied this issue much more extensively and systematically than I ever will, this is an interesting case study in what happens when people make decisions instead of corporate institutions.