NONFICTION: The story of how Bassett Furniture Co. adapted – for good and bad – to the global economy.
Those who wax nostalgic for the golden age of American manufacturing would do well to read “Factory Man,” Beth Macy’s deeply nuanced portrayal of the effects of globalization on a single company: Bassett Furniture Co., once the world’s largest wood furniture manufacturer.
The exhaustively researched book is a reminder that U.S. factories were often built on the same foundation of cheap labor and authoritarian business practices now associated with Chinese manufacturers.
We learn, for instance, that the Bassett men outmaneuvered their early competitors by hiring black workers who were cheaper than the Scots-Irish from the countryside, and that blacks were given the nastiest jobs while being paid much less than whites. We also learn that Bassett’s 14 furniture plants, spanning several Southern states, were still largely segregated eight years after the Civil Rights Act required employers to halt discrimination.
Macy uncovers some dark secrets, such as how the Bassett men continued the Southern tradition of terrorizing “the help.” C.C. Bassett was said to have slept with the family maid and then left their baby without an education or inheritance. A Bassett family cook “steeled herself as the inevitable hand began to crawl up her leg, knowing that she couldn’t flinch or complain.” The misogyny reached the factory floor, where managers competed “to see who could bang the new company nurse or the new hire in advertising first.”
Macy skillfully explains how the furniture industry adjusted to the low-priced Chinese knockoffs that began flooding the U.S. market in the 1980s. Manufacturers responded by producing cheaper products. Along came bedroom sets with fake marble, fake wood and dressers made of fiberboard.
Macy gives globalization a fresh new perspective in the larger-than-life figure of John Bassett III, who hoped to persuade the furniture industry to support him in filing a petition against China for “dumping” products at artificially low prices.
It was a hard sell: By that time, in 2003, importing had become so entrenched that retailers and furniture makers with operations in China were afraid that anti-dumping duties would drive up the costs of their products.
Bassett prevailed, charming lawmakers by comparing Asian furniture to moonshine, arguing that both were cheap and illegal. The International Trade Commission ruled unanimously that Chinese furniture manufacturers had illegally dumped imports on the U.S. market.
Chris Serres is a beat reporter at the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @chrisserres