Will UAW ‘Buy American’ Effort Face Hurdles Under Trump?

From labor disputes cases to labor and employment publications, for your research, you’ll find solutions on Bloomberg Law®. Protect your clients by developing strategies based on Litigation...

By Jaclyn Diaz

A planned UAW advertising campaign to promote a “Buy American” and “Buy Union” message could backfire if consumers equate it with President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration.

That’s the view of a marketing professor from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. But an economist said such fear is unfounded because similar ad campaigns have worked in the past. The argument about Trump is merely liberal “editorializing,” the economist said.

Dennis Williams, president of the United Auto Workers, recently announced plans for the campaign, but the union is not releasing details about it or saying when it will launch.

“There’s an increasing sentiment associated with an appeal of the Buy American mantra,” said Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the Wharton School. But the message also brings challenges, he said. For one thing, consumers love the idea of Buy American but shudder at actually spending more for the same product just because it was made in the U.S., Reed said.

The union should also consider that some consumers may associate the message with the Trump administration, he said.

Trump targeted immigrants from majority-Muslim countries in his Jan. 27 executive order on immigration. He called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals” during his presidential campaign and promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Some consumers may reject the Buy American slogan if they see it as an acceptance of Trump’s rhetoric and policies, Reed said. “They should be considering the population that both supports and rejects Trump,” he said.

Economist Calls Trump Correlation ‘Blather.’

The feared correlation between Trump and Buy American doesn’t withstand scrutiny, Robert Scott with the Economic Policy Institute said.

Scott is the senior economist and director of trade and manufacturing policy research with EPI, an economic policy think tank based in Washington, D.C.

“This has been done many times before and have largely been successful,” Scott said. “I think the blather you hear about isolationism and nationalism is just editorializing from the defenders of the old neo-liberal order of advocates and lobbyists for trade and investment deals, ad infinitum. They have refused to accept the fact that a significant share of the American populace no longer believe that those deals are in their best interest.”

If the campaign raises awareness about U.S.-made products and influences buying behavior, that’s just the power of advertising, which has fueled the media for generations, Scott said.

American Consumers All Talk, No Action

The Alliance for American Manufacturing has surveyed Americans’ attitudes on purchasing U.S.-made products in the past, Scott Paul, the organization’s president, told Bloomberg BNA.

“Every demographic loves” the idea, Paul said. Generally, he thinks the campaign will be well-received.

“People will buy products made by UAW members, thereby keeping workers employed. It’s a virtuous cycle,” he said.

Consumer support comes with a caveat: U.S.-made products shouldn’t cost too much more than the foreign equivalent, Paul said. “Evidence shows that if it doesn’t involve a sizable price shift,” they will buy it.

Surveys only show people like the idea of buying products made in the U.S., not that they will follow through, Reed said.

“The more inconvenient or expensive a solution is, the less likely people are to do it,” he said. “People love the idea. But price is important.”

If they know they can match quality with a cheaper price, they will take it, he said.

What Will UAW Need to Do?

The UAW will likely face a tough road ahead, but a successful campaign is not impossible, Reed said.

The union has to sell it in a way that balances the Trump message and celebrates the quality of work while recognizing that part of that success is with a diverse workforce, he said.

Educating consumers is also a necessary part of the campaign, Scott said.

“They need to make consumers aware that domestic products make domestic jobs,” he said. “No doubt if you do advertising you can make consumers more aware” of the products they buy, he said. “I see no reason why this shouldn’t be effective.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at jDiaz@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Request Labor & Employment on Bloomberg Law