By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterFactory Man
By Beth Macy
Little, Brown and Co., 451pp
Japan is a country that relies on robust international trade for its prosperity, but it is also a country where there is serious worry about the hollowing out of domestic industries. A new book from the United States, “Factory Man” by journalist Beth Macy, shows this predicament is not unique.
“Factory Man” covers more than 100 years in the history of one corner of the American furniture industry. It focuses mainly on industrialist John D. Bassett III — also known as JBIII — and his struggle to keep his Virginia furniture factory open in the face of competition from cheap Chinese imports.
JBIII’s grandfather, an earlier John D. Bassett — known as Mr. J.D. — founded what is now Bassett Furniture Industries Inc. in 1902. He also ran several other businesses, including selling Appalachian lumber. On a trip to Michigan to sell wood to the leading furniture makers of the day, Mr. J.D.’s wife scoped out operations on the factory floor. She “took copious mental notes,” and the Bassetts soon went into the furniture business themselves, with smashing success.
A century later, camcorder-carrying visitors from Taiwan would do the same thing on Bassett’s factory floor.
Mr. J.D. helped various relatives set up furniture companies of their own, turning southwestern Virginia into a thriving industrial region. These included the Vaughan brothers in Galax, a town that “harbored the three keys to Southern furniture-making: plentiful lumber, railroad tracks to carry the finished beds and chifforobes away, and desperate people eager to join the new industrial economy.”
Substitute “container ships” for “railroad tracks,” and you’ve got much of Asia today. With Chinese factories growing by leaps and bounds, 73,000 U.S. furniture factory jobs had been lost by 2003, Macy writes.
JBIII became convinced that some Chinese furniture makers were dumping, or selling mass quantities of goods at artificially low prices to harm the competition. He decided to fight back by petitioning the U.S. government to impose special duties on the worst offenders.
“Factory Man” spends about 200 pages setting the scene for this fight, and another 200 pages describing the combat that ensues. Both the setup and the action are extremely complex. For instance, JBIII left his grandfather’s Bassett Furniture to run his cousins’ Vaughan-Bassett company, and the two companies did not always see eye to eye.
Moreover, the antidumping fight opened crisscrossing fault lines in the U.S. furniture industry between manufacturers and retailers (who liked access to cheap goods), among manufacturers (most of whom offshored big parts of their operations) and between privately held companies and publicly traded ones (which worried about shareholder demands for short-term profits).
Macy does a good job of keeping the tangled story lines straight, and there’s a helpful family tree near the back of the book. The author’s sympathies clearly lie with JBIII and his efforts to keep his workers employed, but she fairly sketches out his opponents’ arguments as well.
In this increasingly interconnected world, “Factory Man” deeply explores issues that are as relevant in Japan as they are in small-town Virginia. It leaves the reader with a lot to think about.
Where to read
Curled up in your favorite comfy chair. But be warned: There’s no way you’ll make it to the end of this book without tilting the chair over to see where it was made.