You see, just about every morning, my father has a bagel. His current toaster still works, but just doesn't fit well on the counter, so Pop started to look for a new toaster while doing his Christmas shopping. Unfortunately, every toaster he picked up within his price range seemed to be made in China, which eventually sent him into cussing tirades that the store clerks are probably still talking about. This lifelong union member just couldn't bear to buy an appliance made in China. More on the Quest for Toast and How NAFTA Stole Christmas after the jump
The Quest for Toast
After the holidays, I decided to try again to find out whether there really were any toasters available that fit his requirements, those being pretty basic- a 2-slice toaster that could hold a bagel, was manufactured in the US, and didn't cost an arm and a leg. I didn't think I would be spending days on this, but that was before I started what should have been a simple online shopping trip. With few exceptions (Dualit Toasters from the UK), nobody really wants to tell you where their toasters are manufactured. That's because they're all made somewhere I can't find on a map.
After several missteps, I finally found an online database that tracks US made products, as reported by consumers. They had a dated report about the mythical Model T75C 2-slice toaster from Toastmaster which might survive on dusty shelves somewhere. I had no luck locating that magical toast beast- it currently appears to be out of production, but may become available again later this year (probably from a new source in China). Thinking that maybe there might be another US made product made by the same manufacturer, I discovered that even the company was gone. Toastmaster has been absorbed into Salton (home of George Forman Grills and foot massagers galore).
The Toaster Capital of the World
Still determined to find Pop a toaster, I hit yet more obscure online toast sources for more info and was thrilled to discover that beeyootiful Mount Airy, North Carolina (aka the home of the fictional Mayberry, where Andy Griffith and Barney lived) was "officially" named the "Toaster Capital of the World" in 1993. Surely, I thought, I could find a toaster for Pop that was made in the Toaster Capital- right? So I started back onto the internet trail looking for information about toasters manufactured at the big Hamilton Beach/Proctor Silex plant in Mount Airy.
Being an environmentally sensitive consumer, I was pleased to quickly discover that the Mount Airy Hamilton Beach/Proctor Silex plant won the NC Governor's Award for Excellence in Waste Reduction in 1994. They reduced the amount of industrial byproducts used at the plant and also reduced the amount of water needed for manufacturing processes.
Then I found something less positive- the plant was listed as the 7th worst site in the state on a priority list of NC hazardous waste sites, with contaminants reported in surface water, soil, sediments and groundwater. Another report that I located listed the plant as being "inactive". Now I'm wondering- does that mean they don't make toasters there anymore? And you've also got to wonder, just what happened since they got the big award from the Governor?
NAFTA, as it relates to Toast
The answer to all those questions seems to be NAFTA (which now has a whole hell of a lot to do with toasters). Signed in 1992, the provisions of NAFTA went into effect January 1, 1994, amid glowing predictions of the potential economic benefits accruing from this and other tariff-busting trade agreements. It wasn't just US economists and politicians that were touting the future of multinational trade agreements. For instance, a 1994 article published in the Times of India proposed that free trade of imported goods would provide higher quality imported goods to consumers in India, simultaneously forcing their domestic producers to improve the quality of their products.
Yeah, like that was gonna work. For a retrospective report on NAFTA ten years later from Public Citizen, go here.
Toast means Jobs, and Jobs are Good, so Toast is Good
What did all that mean for North Carolina? According to federal statistics quoted in a report from Jobs with Justice, there were over 32,000 jobs lost in NC by 2001 as a direct result of NAFTA. That's a conservative estimate linked to eligibility for the same "narrow government retraining program" mentioned by Public Citizen.
So, suddenly I've gone from looking for a NC made toaster to the downfall of American manufacturing (which should have been a whole lot more obvious to me, since I'm sitting in rust-belt Ohio).
What did NAFTA mean for the Mount Airy Hamilton Beach/Proctor Silex plant? It meant that their toaster manufacturing operations were quickly moved to Mexico, the promised land of low-wage workers under NAFTA. The jobs that were lost in Mount Airy were formally certified by the Department of Labor in 1998 as being linked to market pressure- i.e. "there has been a shift in production by such workers' firm or subdivision to Mexico or Canada of articles like or directly competitive with articles which are produced by the firm or subdivisions."
At the Mount Airy plant located in the Toaster Capital of the World, 174 jobs were lost when toaster manufacturing operations moved to Mexico. Another 872 jobs were lost at other Hamilton Beach-Proctor Silex plants in NC that had been manufacturing small household appliances. The 200,000 square feet plant in Mount Airy was recently offered by an industrial real estate specialist. The state of North Carolina is monitoring the hazardous waste site for metal and organic contaminants. Several enterprising legal firms have identified the Mount Airy plant as being a prime candidate for worker's cases that can show mesothelioma related to asbestos exposure.
What's next for toast?
A recent glowing article about NAFTA in the Yale Economic Review explains how US imports from Mexico increased 238% from 1993 to 2002, to $134.7 billion. However, it also reports that a rise in the real wages of Mexican workers has pushed multinational companies to aggressively move their low-wage manufacturing jobs from Mexico to China. Not surprisingly, the parent company of Hamilton Beach/Proctor Silex attributes recent gains in their net income to an increase in sales volume and lower manufacturing costs, all linked to a recent shift in sourcing their products from China.
I still can't find a US made toaster, but my Quest for Toast continues. Maybe I will get lucky and find old stock sitting on a shelf somewhere. I even tried Cheney's approach, but Ebay just didn't work for me. The auction for the Toastmaster Powermatic Imperial went to $53 bucks. Sure, it was 30 years old, but it sure wasn't made in China. Hey- are there any UK Kossacks out there that want to hit a couple thrift stores for me? I'd be willing to make a deal for a Dualit Lite 2-slice model? They look well-made to me and you guys still got unions, but the company won't ship out of the country.
Remember- "Free trade alone is not a panacea for poverty or underdevelopment. Peace, stability, property protection and the rule of law are all important requirements for economic development."
And toast. You can't forget about toast.