CAPE ELIZABETH — The election of Donald Trump as president of the nation is intrinsically linked to a budding economic nationalism grounded, in large measure, in free trade issues and the deindustrialization of the nation. Since 2000, the nation has lost five million manufacturing jobs. Maine has been inexorably linked to this exodus, reporting 32,872 manufacturing jobs lost between 1994 and 2015, the period in which the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization took root.

In Maine, the seeds of this modern economic nationalism can readily be traced back to the 1950s as the state was bombarded with Japan textile imports. In 1955, Maine’s U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith brought the issue into sharp relief:

“(W)e must not let our desires in that regard blind us to the inequities, both to textile workers and textile manufacturers of New England. … It is one thing to help other nations raise their living standards, but it is another thing to permit cheap foreign labor to undermine our own textile industry and thus take jobs away from textile workers and destroy the hard-earned investments of textile manufacturers.” In 1956, the columns of “Textile Labor” shouted “The Japs Are Stealing Your Job” and “British Woolens Mean Hungry Americans.” Such slogans appeared with numbing regularity in many textile communities and served as a barometer of the seismic economic shifts under way.

Glimpses of the “new realities” abound. In 1958, Maine Congressman Frank M. Coffin noted it was not only Japan, Hong Kong, England, Italy and India who provided competition, but the potential of scores of nations taking their first steps towards industrialization. Further, the textile export potential of the six European countries which formed the Common Market (European Economic Community) was estimated to undergo dramatic growth. In short, argued Coffin, the nation was facing the first impact of world industrialization in cotton textiles.

Earlier, in 1950, B. Morton Havey, executive director of Associated Industries of Maine, rang a deafening alarm that shoes were flowing into the nation “in ever-increasing amounts” and asked, “How long can this increase of imports continue in such leaps and bounds before it hits in our own back yard?”

The answer was not long in coming. In 1961, Maine’s U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie vigorously fought to create a legislative firewall to check the “damaging flow” of shoe imports while the Boot and Shoe Workers Union prepared to launch sit-down strikes and produced bumper stickers that announced “Buy U.S. shoes, save US. jobs.” By 1965, consumers in various areas of the nation were learning that “Buying imported shoes exports American jobs.”

A symptom of the times was reflected in the passage of The Trade Expansion Act (largely in response to the emergence of the European Common Market), which provided trade adjustment assistance to industries and workers hurt by rising imports. The measure, however, could not guarantee the survival of the industries.

In 1973, Maine U.S. Rep. Peter Kyros, noted that the importation of textiles and shoes from every corner of the globe continued to batter pillars of Maine manufacturing, and declared that between 1958 and 1973 the state had lost “nearly 200 factories.”

The new economic transformations and global dimension of trade were brought home to Maine workers directly in the loss of jobs and through the columns of labor-oriented publications such as the “Maine State Labor News,” which in 1970 reflected the concerns about the economic transformation of the nation and featured such themes as “U.S. Capital Abroad Threatens Americans’ Buying Power” and “Multinational Corporations Threaten U.S. Workers, Not Foreign Labor.” In 1971, the president of the Maine State Federated Labor Council, Benjamin Dorsky, took note of the rise of “huge international giants of industry aided by our money institutions, depriving us of our jobs for their own personal gain.”

In 1975, the helmsman of the labor movement testified before the United States International Trade Commission, protesting any further reductions in import duties on goods manufactured in Maine, such as shoe, textile, electronics, and wood products including clothespins, toothpicks and furniture.

Little wonder that by the early 1970s, “grassroots” cries of “Buy U.S.” became part of the lexicon and reflected the growing concern about foreign imports and the exportation of American jobs. Whether it was called “deindustrialization,” “capital flight,” “disinvestment,” “plant closings,” “runaway plants” or by any other name, a new economic nationalism was born.

Perhaps that economic nationalism is reaching maturity, and only its shape and form remain to be defined.


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